In 1951, Mack Ingram was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to two years of hard labor for looking at a white teenager in Yanceyville, North Carolina. The egregious miscarriage of justice captured national attention, specifically from civil rights organizations. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent attorneys to Yanceyville after hearing of Ingram’s arrest, and the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) took up the case in its public relations campaign against “lynch law.” Ingram’s experience with southern sexual mores and the legal system embodies the complications of Black masculinity in the United States. It demonstrates the sexual boundaries used to preserve and protect white women, despite class, but not Black women. American historical mythology constructs the 1950s as a time of civil rights advances, including the Brown decision and the Montgomery bus boycotts; but Ingram’s case demonstrates the persistence of gendered and sexual biases that solidified white resistance to meaningful change even as change was on the horizon.
Matt Ingram, known as Mack, was a forty-four-year-old tobacco farmer in the small town of Yanceyville. Ingram, married and a father of nine, was economically independent and owned his own mules, tools, and “ramshackle jalopy.” He was also known in his community as an upstanding citizen and devoted family man. On an early June morning in 1951, Ingram was driving to the Boswell farm to borrow a trailer, when seventeen-year-old Willa Jean Boswell claimed that Ingram looked at her from a distance of seventy-five feet. Boswell was dressed like a boy during the encounter and Ingram later told police he thought she was one of the Boswell’s sons. Ingram was arrested and charged with assault with intent to rape. At Ingram’s first trial the prosecutor, using racist slang, declared that “young womanhood” had to be protected from Black men. Ingram was found guilty of the lesser charge of assault because the state Supreme Court decision prevented rape convictions with no physical contact. He was given the maximum sentence, two years of hard labor.
The Civil Rights Congress, an American Communist Party (CPUSA) organization took up Ingram’s cause in Party papers, while the NAACP sent attorneys to help in the defense. Though the CRC often praised the efforts of the NAACP, at the height of anti-communist hysteria, the NAACP tried to distance itself from the CRC’s efforts and found itself in competition with the organization and frustrated with its tactics. The CRC and the Party’s favorite tactics were to level accusations against local law enforcement and state officials, something the NAACP believed inflamed authorities against their defendants and alienated supporters. The Party also encouraged letter-writing campaigns on behalf of the defendants, which tended to irritate state officials and solidify opposition to Black defendants.
The CRC’s skill lay in successfully circulating the case to its nationwide audience. With sensational headlines in The Daily Worker like “Negro Was Framed For Doing Too Well On Farm,” and “Negro Jailed Because White Woman Saw Him,” the Party managed to focus progressives’ attention on Ingram’s case. The articles zeroed in on the injustice of Ingram’s prosecution and sentence positing Ingram’s economic success as the cause and claiming he was a threat to the local white establishment. Though not totally off the mark, the CPUSA did not highlight the historical boundaries placed around white womanhood’s sexuality and its weaponization against Black masculinity. The only indication of this issue was the article’s focus on Willa Jean Boswell’s absurd accusations against Ingram. In one article the Party highlighted that Boswell admitted on the stand that Ingram neither spoke nor came close to her. In another, the Party repeated that at no time did Ingram touch or come close to Boswell and that he was never closer than seventy-five feet away from the teenager.1
Cases like Ingram’s revealed the deeply undemocratic practices in the United States which became a liability in its ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The CRC and the CPUSA were only too happy to exploit these cases in an effort to prove that equity was an impossibility in a capitalist state. In one article linking Mack’s case to Rosa Lee Ingram’s (no relation), the Party mocked the US’s claims to being “the land of the free.” Both Ingrams, one falsely accused of sexual assault, and one, Rosa Lee Ingram, accused of murder for protecting herself from sexual assault, exemplified the dangers of white America’s investments in policing Black sexuality. Both cases showed that white women’s sexuality was used as a weapon to criminalize Black bodies and limit sexual freedom. The article spelled out the stakes in the Cold War by arguing that the only thing the US could offer “people of the East and Africa” was subjugation to America’s “white ruling class.”2
Mary Frances Berry argues that the Party’s interference in the Ingram case, however, was more hurtful than helpful. Particularly in the case of the Party’s North Carolina organizer Junius Scales. Scales immediately denounced the “white supremacist outrage” in Yanceyville and urged the governor to do a “house cleaning” of the “legal machinery” in that county. Scales mocked Boswell as a “supposed victim” and claimed that some had begun to talk of lynching Ingram. Scales argued that Yanceyville’s justice system was merely a “white supremacist instrument” to control the local Black population. Little of what Scales said was wrong, and arguably not overstated, but international press often repeated the charges in The Daily Worker forcing the State Department to issue rebuttals and putting NAACP lawyers on the defensive. The lawyers complained that the CRC’s and the CPUSA’s publicity harmed their defendant and prejudiced the local population against him. The NAACP saw the attacks on the local justice system as solidifying resistance to the defendant and increasing local intransigence, not to mention compromising the NAACP’s own efforts to distance themselves from communists.3
Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Congress continued its attacks and cited Mack Ingram in its We Charge Genocide petition to the United Nations later that year. With the additional attention and the NAACP defense attorneys, Ingram was eventually exonerated. But his life and the life of his family was forever changed. The family struggled throughout the years of the trial and after. Boswell’s accusations led to the family’s ostracism. Black farmers would no longer hire him for fear of retaliation from the white community, and the family felt uncomfortable entering Yanceyville so they had to travel to a nearby town to do their shopping. Eventually, Ingram had to sell his mules because he could not maintain their upkeep.
Many scholars have written about the centrality of sex and sexuality to American racism. Timothy Tyson argues that sex is the driving force behind racism dating back to slavery when white men claimed their right to Black women’s bodies without consent to reproduce their slave labor force, while using violence to protect white women’s bodies from Black men to avoid producing a free Black population. Crystal Feimster explores the uses of sexuality to police Black men’s and women’s bodies after the Civil War and the legal and physical force used to maintain racial and sexual boundaries. Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street explores the consequences of ignoring the violent sexual assaults on Black women and how activists used that to organize for their own bodily autonomy. Mary Frances Berry argues that Mack Ingram’s case exemplifies the limitations placed on Black male bodies to police sexuality, but she also argues that it is an example of the limits placed on sexual freedom. Only three years before the lynching of Emmitt Till, Ingram’s story demonstrates that not only was Black sexuality policed to control the Black population and limit sexual freedom, but it was also used to resist the changes brewing over the horizon. The NAACP gradually chipped away at Jim Crow segregation, while radical groups, though often sensational and thus viewed as troublesome, exposed the deep undemocratic fissures that prevented lasting change. The Mack Ingram case demonstrates that sexuality was weaponized to maintain white supremacy and resist the efforts of the Black Freedom Struggle. Ingram and his family paid a hefty price for one white woman’s accusation. By the time he died in 1973, his family was destitute and alienated from their community. His lived with the stigma of his arrest until her own death in 2003.
- “Negro Jailed Because White Woman Saw Him,” 9 July 1951, Daily Worker, p. 3, and “Negro Was Framed for Doing Too Well on Farm,” 12 July 1951, Daily Worker, pp. 6, 12. ↩
- “2 Frameups – 2 Ingrams – Both Negroes,” 17 July 1951, Daily Worker, p. 2. ↩
- “Rap Jailing of Negro Farmer,” 16 July 1951, Daily Worker, p. 3. ↩