Reckless eyeballing – the Matt Ingram case

Under segregation, a person (of color) could be accused of “reckless eyeballing,” which means an improper look at a white person. Under the circumstances, the person was presumed to have had sexual intent. 

Matt Ingram was a black tenant farmer and was convicted of this offense in North Carolina in 1951. 

He was among the last convicted under this framework, in a 1951 case made notorious by civil rights activists in North Carolina. A seventeen-year-old white woman named Willa Jean Boswell testified against him that she was scared when her neighbor Ingram, looked at her from a distance of about 65 feet.

However, prosecutors demanded a conviction of assault with intent to rape that was reduced to an assault on a female by the judge which led to a two-year sentence.  Ingram was defended by a white lawyer, Ernest Frederick Upchurch, Sr.

At the appeal in the Superior Court, the judge instructed the jury that Ingram was guilty if he used “intentional threats or menace of violence such as looking at a person in a leering manner”, ” in some sort of sly or threatening or suggestive manner” then he causes another to reasonably apprehend imminent danger”.

However, after pressure from the NAACP and African-American media like Ebony, the state Supreme Court vacated the conviction because: “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.

“Ingram may have looked with lustful eyes but any overt act was absent.” The look alone no longer represented grounds for conviction, as people continued to be convicted of assault if there was “reasonable apprehension” of danger, such as a body movement, movement in the direction of the person under observation and so on.

Ingram spent over two years in prison while his 3 trials took two-and-a-half years to resolve. 

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He was married to Linwood Jeffress Ingram and the couple had nine children. 

The tenant farmer died in 1973.