Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cohabitation Arrests, 1968-1972: Law and Order

            In Tampa in 1969 a young black militant, Otha Favors and his white girlfriend, Sharon Clinkenbeard, were arrested for cohabitation, a crime in the state of Florida. Tampa police were reining in black militants by charging them with minor violations of the law. Was it the black power antiwar activist or the young black guy and his white girlfriend that bothered the Tampa police? Both Favors and Clinkenbeard served a week in jail before their sentences were overturned. The US Supreme Court had declared Florida’s law against interracial cohabitation in 1964, but cohabitation, so long as it was not a distinctly racial, remained a crime.
  My research for Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution (Chicago, 2012) turned up a history usually filed under the heading COINTELPRO or midnight raids on welfare mothers. In fact, the sexual revolution of the late 1960s occurred in the midst of a multiplicity of social movements, and especially in the midst of the welfare rights movement and black power.  The U.S. was engaged in a culture war in the 1920s, the 1870s, and 1670s.  Arguing about gender, sexuality, and family is always arguing about something more—often the fate of the collectivity. If there is a long tradition of conflict over religious and moral values in U.S. history, what we might call the issues in the culture war are constantly changing.  In the late 1960s  law and order prosecutors dusted off sex crime laws to arrest hippies, black power advocates, interracial couples, and women on welfare.  Prosecutors in small, highly religious towns and rural areas, especially in the Bible Belt, used these laws against the “Easy Riders” who appeared in town and against the young, the poor,  racial minorities—black power militants and not--defying traditional sexual and marital norms. Social workers were spying on welfare mothers and the police were tracking black militants but police internal investigation squads were also tracking the sexual habits of their fellow officers  living together.
The culture wars have become increasingly associated with the polarization of the political parties—the red and blue states—but the polarization was already there in the late 1960s. Law and order was the Republican rallying cry. As in the case of Favors and Clinkenbeard, at the extreme end an arrest for cohabitation could lead to a brief time in jail.  A study funded by the Playboy Foundation found that there were at least 3241 prosecutions for fornication and cohabitation between 1968 and 1972. The regulation of sexuality was a little known feature of the law and order ethos. How could there be so many prosecutions for cohabitation when young people on campus were so often living together?  Precisely because the threat was perceived as growing and getting closer to home and because defying sexual and marital norms were a key symbol of the threat, law and order meant policing sexual revolution against a wide range of targeted groups. Policing morality was directed not only at the poor and racial minorities and but also at police officers, librarians, and teachers who were defying traditional rules of sexuality and morality. The arrest of Favors and Clinkenbeard was the last time a couple was arrested for the crime of cohabitation in Florida, but the law remains on the books, despite repeated efforts to remove it.