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In June 1951, Matt Ingram was arrested and accused of “reckless eyeballing” (improperly looking at a white person with sexual intent). He was one of the last Black Americans to be convicted under the Jim Crow law. Ingram was a Black sharecropper living in Yanceyville, North Carolina. He was married with nine children.
The alleged crime occurred when Ingram went to his white neighbor to see if he could borrow his truck. The neighbor’s seventeen-year-old daughter Willa Jean Boswell was present along with other siblings. Ingram left the home when he recognized that their father was not home. Bosewell testified in court that Ingram frightened her when he looked at her from about seventy-five feet away. The accusations had the small North Carolina community in an uproar. Prosecutors demanded that Ingram be charged and convicted of assault with intent to rape. The charge was later reduced to an assault on a female by the judge.
Ingram spent two and a half years in prison and went through three trials before being released. His legal counsel was a white lawyer, Frederick Upchurch. During the appeal hearing in Superior Court, the judge instructed the jury that Ingram was guilty as charged if he used “intentional threats or menace of violence such as looking at a person in a leering manner that is , in some sort of sly or threatening or suggestive manner….he cause another to reasonably apprehend imminent danger.” On appeal, an all-white jury returned a conviction, leading to a six-month sentence of road labor, suspended for five years.
The NAACP and Black media outlets took up Ingram’s case advocating for his release. Due to community pressure, the state supreme court vacated the conviction stating, “It cannot be said that a pedestrian may be assaulted by a look, however frightening, from a person riding in an automobile some distance away. He may have looked with lustful eyes but there was the absence of any overt act.” This resulted in the look alone no longer represented grounds for conviction.
This account represents just one of many racist acts perpetrated against Black Americans following the Civil War when racist laws were enacted for control, oppression, discrimination, and economic oppression. Check out this video for more info:
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