Today, voters in North Carolina will go to the polls to decide whether Amendment One–which would define marriage in the state constitution as being only between a cis man and a cis woman, and outlaw same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships–will become law. But the wife of a state senator has already been reportedly caught trying to use racial anxieties as a call to arms to support the bill.
The story started to unfold last week, when freelance journalist Chad Nance recorded the wife of state Sen. Peter Brunstetter talking to poll workers in Winston-Salem, as Pam Spaulding noted:
"Nance said he recorded a conversation with the woman, whose name is Jodie Brunstetter, on video, and that she confirmed that she used the term “Caucasian” in a discussion about the marriage amendment, but insisted that otherwise her comments had been taken out of context by other poll workers.… Nance paraphrased the remarks, as told to him by those who were present: “During the conversation, Ms. Brunstetter said her husband was the architect of Amendment 1, and one of the reasons he wrote it was to protect the Caucasian race. She said Caucasians or whites created this country. We wrote the Constitution. This is about protecting the Constitution. There already is a law on the books against same-sex marriage, but this protects the Constitution from activist judges.”
The story comes just over a month after the Human Rights Coalition unearthed an internal report from the National Organization of Marriage detailing how to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks.”
Peter Brunstetter later told Think Progress his wife “does not think like that” and had gotten flustered by someone asking her questions.“My wife is one of the sweetest, most genuine people you will ever meet,” he said. “Her convictions on the marriage amendment are spiritual in nature, not racial. The individual in question had been quite abusive and intimidating. The Amendment is not racially motivated, is quite simple and straightforward and, in fact, is widely supported in many areas of the African American community.”
I recall my grandmother and father telling me, when I was about 10, about a relative who courageously fought back against and killed a white jailer who attempted to rape her. I did not hear the story again until I read about Joan Little in graduate school. It was only then that I learned that Joan’s fight for survival had made national headlines and transformed U.S. attitudes about racialized sexual violence and victims’ rights.
Before I was old enough to grasp the intricacies of Little’s case, I understood that the tales about her were a lesson about our family values–about preserving one’s honor and dignity in the face of pervasive racism and sexism. Now that I know the full story, I know that Little advanced those values on a larger scale than I’d ever imagined: Her case galvanized a diverse movement of activists across the nation to band together and demand justice for Joan, as well as for other women of color, sexual assault survivors and victims of police brutality.
After growing up in challenging circumstances of racism and economic inequality, Little was arrested for breaking, entering and larceny in Washington, N.C., in 1974. Later that year, the 20-year-old Little was charged with using deadly force against Clarence Alligood, her white jailer and would-be rapist. Little escaped from prison following the assault and disappeared for a week–during which time local officials called for her to be shot–then surrendered and was quickly indicted.
Throughout the case, various whites and even blacks in the community opined that Little was guilty of seducing and then killing Alligood in order to escape jail. Her detractors denied Little’s innocence because of her criminal background, so-called “fast” lifestyle and rumored “immorality.” For some, Little could never be a rape “victim” because she did not meet their standards of social respectability. The prosecution capitalized on these attitudes, characterizing Little as a depraved seductress. They were “[more] interested in sending black women to the gas chamber than the truth,” Little later recalled. In spite of all this, Little remained self-possessed and maintained her plea of self-defense.
Historically speaking, the odds were against her. Only a few decades earlier, in the 1940s, it had been “nearly impossible for black victims of sexual violence to receive justice in the courts,” writes Danielle L. McGuire in her landmark history, At The Dark End Of The Street. In 1944, Rosa Lee Ingram had been given the death penalty by an all-white jury for killing a white man in self-defense in Georgia.
However, in the intervening years, the “ritualistic rape and intimidation” of black women by white men had become one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. Over the course of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, thousands of black people mobilized to defend women’s bodily integrity and dignity.