One year ago yesterday, a black man took the oath of office for the Presidency of the United States for the first time in history. Barack Obama's election was a watershed moment for a nation that has endured a long and often bloody march, marked by frequent detours and wrong turns, toward equality for all its citizens. The very idea that a black man will stand before the United States Congress next week to deliver a State of the Union Address is all the more poignant, and profound, if we recall another State of the Union Address, delivered more than 100 years ago, on December 3, 1906, by one of America's most accomplished presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. That Address spent an inordinate amount of time discussing a problem then peculiar to black men: lynchings for allegedly committing rape -- lynchings that too often took the lives of innocent men.
Readers likely will find the excerpt of that Address, reprinted below, both fascinating and horrifying. It is replete with notions that that will cause our more enlightened eyes to widen with astonishment and repugnance. Most prominent among these is the underlying tone that black men are little better than beasts who frequently rape. Moreover, Roosevelt declared without equivocation (and without explanation) that rape is a crime "even worse than murder" that deserves the death penalty.
But the Address provides important historical context for understanding where we are today; specifcially, our modern day reaction to rape accusations and our peculiar toleration of the harm to men and boys falsely accused of rape. We have made much progress in the past 103 years. We understand that black men are not quasi-humans who rape with abandon. And today, black men are rarely literally lynched for alleged rape. Indeed, next week a black man will stand in front of Congress to deliver the State of the Union Address. But despite the progress, many of the underlying problems discussed by President Roosevelt remain: the intense visceral reaction to rape claims, the rush to judgment when it comes to rape, and the frequent, and unjust, punishment of the innocent in our zeal to punish the guilty. We have outgrown our taste for literally lynching men accused of rape. But our law enforcement and judicial apparatuses are too often wielded to deter rape at all costs, manifesting a casual indifference to men falsely accused of rape, both black and white, that can be just as destructive, just as evil, as lynching. Only our more respectable, modern-day version of rape lynching is countenanced by law. And the words quoted by President Roosevelt about how the lynchings someday will extend to white men were sadly prophetic.
Here, is an excerpt from President Theodore Roosevelt's State of the Union Address, December 3, 1906:
"I call your attention and the attention of the Nation to the prevalence of crime among us, and above all to the epidemic of lynching and mob violence that springs up, now in one part of our country, now in another. . . . A great many white men are lynched, but the crime is peculiarly frequent in respect to black men. The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape--the most abominable in all the category of crimes, even worse than murder. Mobs frequently avenge the commission of this crime by themselves torturing to death the man committing it; thus avenging in bestial fashion a bestial deed, and reducing themselves to a level with the criminal.
"Lawlessness grows by what it feeds upon; and when mobs begin to lynch for rape they speedily extend the sphere of their operations and lynch for many other kinds of crimes, so that two-thirds of the lynchings are not for rape at all; while a considerable proportion of the individuals lynched are innocent of all crime. Governor Candler, of Georgia, stated on one occasion some years ago: 'I can say of a verity that I have, within the last month, saved the lives of half a dozen innocent Negroes who were pursued by the mob, and brought them to trial in a court of law in which they were acquitted.' As Bishop Galloway, of Mississippi, has finely said: 'When the rule of a mob obtains, that which distinguishes a high civilization is surrendered. The mob which lynches a negro charged with rape will in a little while lynch a white man suspected of crime. Every Christian patriot in America needs to lift up his voice in loud and eternal protest against the mob spirit that is threatening the integrity of this Republic.' Governor Jelks, of Alabama, has recently spoken as follows: 'The lynching of any person for whatever crime is inexcusable anywhere--it is a defiance of orderly government; but the killing of innocent people under any provocation is infinitely more horrible; and yet innocent people are likely to die when a mob's terrible lust is once aroused. The lesson is this: No good citizen can afford to countenance a defiance of the statutes, no matter what the provocation. The innocent frequently suffer, and, it is my observation, more usually suffer than the guilty. The white people of the South indict the whole colored race on the ground that even the better elements lend no assistance whatever in ferreting out criminals of their own color. The respectable colored people must learn not to harbor their criminals, but to assist the officers in bringing them to justice. This is the larger crime, and it provokes such atrocious offenses as the one at Atlanta. The two races can never get on until there is an understanding on the part of both to make common cause with the law-abiding against criminals of any color.'
"Moreover, where any crime committed by a member of one race against a member of another race is avenged in such fashion that it seems as if not the individual criminal, but the whole race, is attacked, the result is to exasperate to the highest degree race feeling. There is but one safe rule in dealing with black men as with white men; it is the same rule that must be applied in dealing with rich men and poor men; that is, to treat each man, whatever his color, his creed, or his social position, with even-handed justice on his real worth as a man. White people owe it quite as much to themselves as to the colored race to treat well the colored man who shows by his life that he deserves such treatment; for it is surely the highest wisdom to encourage in the colored race all those individuals who are honest, industrious, law-abiding, and who therefore make good and safe neighbors and citizens. Reward or punish the individual on his merits as an individual. Evil will surely come in the end to both races if we substitute for this just rule the habit of treating all the members of the race, good and bad, alike. There is no question of 'social equality' or 'negro domination' involved; only the question of relentlessly punishing bad men, and of securing to the good man the right to his life, his liberty, and the pursuit of his happiness as his own qualities of heart, head, and hand enable him to achieve it.
"Every colored man should realize that the worst enemy of his race is the negro criminal, and above all the negro criminal who commits the dreadful crime of rape; and it should be felt as in the highest degree an offense against the whole country, and against the colored race in particular, for a colored man to fail to help the officers of the law in hunting down with all possible earnestness and zeal every such infamous offender. Moreover, in my judgment, the crime of rape should always be punished with death, as is the case with murder; assault with intent to commit rape should be made a capital crime, at least in the discretion of the court; and provision should be made by which the punishment may follow immediately upon the heels of the offense; while the trial should be so conducted that the victim need not be wantonly shamed while giving testimony, and that the least possible publicity shall be given to the details.
The members of the white race on the other hand should understand that every lynching represents by just so much a loosening of the bands of civilization; that the spirit of lynching inevitably throws into prominence in the community all the foul and evil creatures who dwell therein. No man can take part in the torture of a human being without having his own moral nature permanently lowered. Every lynching means just so much moral deterioration in all the children who have any knowledge of it, and therefore just so much additional trouble for the next generation of Americans.
"Let justice be both sure and swift; but let it be justice under the law, and not the wild and crooked savagery of a mob."