According to a newspaper report, approximately 200 men lynched Ed Roach, a 24 year-old Black man from Reidsville, NC. Roach was being held in a Person County jail on the charge of attempted criminal assault of Annie Lou Chambers, a 14 year-old White girl. On the morning of July 7, 1920, the mob of 200 gathered at the jail, fired fifty shots in order to intimidate Sheriff N.S. Thompson into leaving after he pleaded they allow the law to do its job, abducted Roach, and took him to a graveyard near “Negro Church” where he was hanged from a tree. Afterward, his lynched body was riddled with bullets.
Less than a week later, The Raleigh Independent followed up on the story with new info to suggest the wrong man was killed. Roach’s employer, Nello Taylor, signed a statement alleging: “When this Negro was lynched, as innocent a man was murdered as could have been, had you or I been the victim of the mob….Roach was working for me and was a quiet, hard-working inoffensive humble Negro.”
It’s stories such as these, which are all too abundant in our history, that make it easy to celebrate the exoneration of Brian Banks. Banks spent five years in prison and five years on probation after being convicted of rape in 2002. There was no physical evidence to support then 15 year-old Wanetta Gibson’s allegations that Banks raped her on campus of the southern California high school which they attended at the time. Gibson’s story of the encounter, in which Banks held that the two kissed and groped but nothing more took place, was the sole bit of evidence used to convict. She later sued the school for lack of safety on campus and was awarded $1.5 million. Banks, a highly recruited high school linebacker who had accepted an offer to attend the University of Southern California, had his future taken away from him.
Last year, Gibson sent Banks a message via Facebook asking they “let bygones be bygones,” and she admitted to having lied about the rape. In a conversation Banks secretly videotaped, Gibson told him that she would not repeat the story to prosecutors for fear that she would have to return the money awarded her in the civil suit. This confession led to Banks having the conviction cleared from his record.
It’s a sure relief for Banks that he has been exonerated after all these years, though he can never get back his time. What may have been, what could have been, are now only thought experiments. The system failed Banks. His story isn’t exactly like Roach’s, mentioned earlier. There was no sheriff that acquiesced to the demands of an armed mob, no lynching, the alleged victims are different races, and Banks lived to uncover the truth. But what is likely shared is that their station as Black men in America influenced assumptions of their guilt. The fear of Black men’s supposed sexual deviancy and violent disposition date back even further than our history in this country.
However, there’s a danger in celebrating this too hard or allowing this one instance of a falsely-reported rape to feed the cultural ambivalence toward the very serious issue of rape and sexual assault. It’s particularly of interest because Banks is a Black man. We have a tendency, in the Black community, to give primacy to the lives and experiences of Black men, because we have historically been subjected to treatment as harsh as Roach, that in turn obscures the real conditions of women in our community and leaves us to assume that Black men are constantly under attack and incapable of attacking.
Banks is innocent, this is true. Gibson lied and benefited monetarily because of that lie. We have to be careful not to presume this is case in all instances of sexual violence that involve Black men as the potential perpetrators. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), nearly 19% of Black women have been raped or experienced an attempted rape in their lifetime (this statistic reflects Black women identified solely as Black, as mixed-race is presented as a separate category). A study released last year showed that nearly 60% of Black girls under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of Black men.
The fear that Black men will be falsely accused of crimes they did not commit is real and present. The fear of Black women being sexually assaulted by the men in their lives is far too common.
It’s this intersection that requires us to use our nimble and nuanced minds when approaching the delicate nature of alleged rapes that involve Black men. We neither want to feed the perception that all Black men are depraved beings incapable of controlling themselves and should be locked away, or to deny the women involved their bodily autonomy, human dignity, and right to have their voices and concerns heard with open ears and minds. Our allegiance should always be to the truth.
What happened to Banks should not ever happen. It has happened far too often as the criminal (in)justice system has reinforced and placated fears that surround the images of Black men. We still haven’t escaped that reality. Banks has been afforded a second chance not given to many, and considering it comes as a result of the truth it’s a moment worth praise.
However, going forward it’s important to remember that most victims of rape are not simply lying and/or seeking to get paid. The pain of Black women cannot be overlooked to absolve the pain of Black men. Collective healing is the only move worth considering.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.