"Please I beg of you to help me and talk with me. I'm truly afraid to die, and Louisiana Penitentiary is a very dangerous place for a 16-year-old to spend the rest of his life."- Johnny Ross, 1976
Amistad archivists, working with the records of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund found these heart-wrenching words recently. Work on the collection had to pause for a time that day, as Johnny's letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) struck horror in the hearts of our archivists. We needed to know more.
Supporting documents within the collection shed some light on this young man's plea and the era in which his case was fought. The 1970s heralded the emergence of the women's movement, the anti-death penalty movement and the ongoing work of the SPLC and other civil rights organizations to address the systemic role of racism and sexism in the criminal justice system.
Johnny's story is one that is repetitive in our American history. At age 16 Johnny Ross, an African American, was charged as an adult, convicted and sentenced to death in 1975 for the rape of a white woman. At the time, he was the youngest inmate to ever be sentenced to death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Absurdly enough, Johnny was not old enough to attend his own execution, under state law.
After a police lineup in which Johnny was not initially identified by the victim as her rapist, Johnny, then 15, signed a confession under extreme duress without a parent, guardian or legal counsel present. Though uncorroborated, Johnny maintained that he was beaten severely while in police custody until he signed the confession. Needless to say, his court-appointed attorney did not mount a vigorous, or even adequate, defense on his behalf. Nevertheless, the Southern Poverty Law Center and its president, Julian Bond, believed Johnny.
"Only if I had someone to hold my hand and walk with me I know I will make it."- Johnny M. Ross, 1976.
Johnny's letter within the collection at Amistad was the first letter the Southern Poverty Law Center received from him. Julian Bond sent it, along with a letter of appeal and an image of Johnny in his cell at Angola, to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC). The FSC advocates for black farmers, low income people and their communities. It is understandable why the SPLC would seek the FSC's support for Johnny's case.
"I am aware that my letter comes at a time when the women's movement is struggling to make our society recognize and deal with the crime of rape. My concern for Johnny Ross is not at odds with this struggle. Rather, it is a dimension of it - because the historical treatment of interracial rape, particularly in the South, has been an expression of both sexism and racism."- Julian Bond, President, Southern Poverty Law Center, 1976
As Bond references in his letter of appeal for Johnny, the 1970s birthed the women's movement and the emergence of the anti-rape movement. It was a time when women of color and white feminists were banding together and seeking legal reforms to protect victims of rape, while spotlighting women's experiences with sexual violence to the broader public.
The SPLC was working in this area as well. In particular, it took a stand against women of color being raped by white men. The 1975 case of Joan Little illustrates this. Bond notes in one letter SPLC's success in defending Little against the capital charge of murder, for using deadly force to defend herself from a sexual assault by a prison guard at Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina, in 1974. Her case was a landmark case. Little was the first woman in the United States acquitted for killing while defending herself from sexual violence.
Both cases were death penalty cases. As Bond notes in his letter, 455 men were executed for rape during the period dating from 1930 and the majority, 405, were black men. By the 1970s, only the Southern states of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana maintained the death penalty for sentencing rapists.
The grossly disproportionate number of black men sentenced to death for rape is obvious. Johnny remained on death row until Louisiana's mandatory death sentence for rape was struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1977. Bond's reference to the women's movement and the crime of rape highlights the long history of ongoing sexual violence against women in general. In particular, it reminds us of the terror campaign against black women by white men and the reality that a black woman faced death for defending herself against a white man.
The threat of lynching for black men and rape for black women, from slavery onward in American history, demonstrate how systemic terrorism was used to maintain white political, social and racial control over black lives and black communities.
Johnny Ross' case is an example of the miscarriage of justice and the presumption of guilt when a black man was accused of raping a white woman. We see this multiple times throughout U.S. history, one of the more well-known cases being that of the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 Alabama. Joan Little's case is an example of the triumph of the women's movement in demanding justice for women who have experienced sexual violence at the hands of men.
The SPLC in early 1980 sought to move Johnny's case to the federal court system. But when new forensic details emerged, all charges were dropped in 1981.
Johnny Ross was exonerated and released after more than six years in Angola. He was 22.
More information about Johnny Ross' case can be found in the National Registry of Exonerations.
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