”I just felt for my self that this was something I could not accept”, said Queen Silvia of Sweden, and refused, together with her daugther Princess Madeleine, to attend the Polar Prize Music Award ceremony last Monday.

What the queen could not accept was that one of the awardees, rock legend Chuck Berry, 87, ”in the 1960s was convicted for having sex with a fourteen old girl”.

Several things could be said about this. Such as Queen Silvias long commitment to fighting child abuse and child pornography is one of the more laudable parts of the Swedish royal’s activities. You may also suggest that the limitation period of a 55-year old transgression is long ended.

Chuck Berry is no saint. He has spent time in jail for tax evasion, and was accused of (although never convicted) of secredly videotaping his female employees’ locker room.

But more important still is to scrutinize the truth in the Queens repeated – and basically very grave – accusations and decision to refrain from attending the awards ceremony in Stockholm.

In the summer 1959 Mr Berry was touring in Texas. In a hotel bar he was approached by a girl, Janice Escalanti, 14. She was of Native American descent and had run away from home a year earlier. Since then, she had lived on the road and already had a police record of arrests for drunkedness and prostitution.

When asked about her age, Janice Escalanti stated that she was 21. She hung around the star (who, if the comparison is allowed, was something like Jay-Z of his day). After a couple of days Berry offered her employment at his newly opened club in St Louis, and she traveled with the band by car up to the town.

The job was no success. Janice Escalanti would not disclose her social security number, and she was not paying attention to her duties in the cloakroom. After a couple of weeks Berry decided to fire her. He bought her a return ticket to El Paso and gave her som pocket money.

Ms Escalanti, however, were not interested in returning back home to family and school. Instead, she contated the police in Yuma, Arizona, where she had relatives. After hearing her story, the Yuma police contacted their colleagues in St Louis.

The St Louis officers reacted swiftly and arrested Mr Berry at his club, a few days before Christmas 1959.

Berry was charged with breaking a very particular law: The Mann Act.

This act was a product of the early 19th century, created as a response to a at the tme widespread moral panic, fueled by greatly exaggerated stories about so-called ”white slave trade”, where white women allegedly was abducted and forced into prostitution.

The Mann Act (named after a US senator) made it illegal for men to transport women over state lives for ”immoral purposes”.

One infamous early case involved heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, but as the white woman he was travelling with denied being abused in any way (and indeed later married Johnson) the obviously racially motivated charges was dropped.

Another well known case – vigorously pursued by FBI head J Edgar Hoover – involved comedian and actor Charlie Chaplin. The evidence was that Chaplin (who was a well known communist sympathizer) had bought a railway ticket from New York to Los Angeles for his mistress.

By the time Chuck Berry was arrested the Mann Act had deteriorated and was widely used as an excuse for local police departments to stop an harrass black men travelling together with white women.

When questioned by the investigators, Janice Escalanti stated that she and Berry did have sex at several occasions (something the entertainer himself denied).

The prosecutor, hovewer, saw the journey from Texas to St Louis as grounds for charging Berry with violation of the Mann Act.

Did Mr Berry, then, have a sexual relation with a fourteen-year old girl in 1959? Maybe, maybe not. As the Mann Act was written there were no need to prove this: it was enough that he had the intention of abusing or exploiting her.

To state, as Queen Silvia of Sweden did, that Berry was sentenced for engaging in sexual relations with Escalanti in 1959 is therefore incorrect. The purported crime was transporting her over state lines.

The jury was all-white, the judge kept referring to Berry as ”the negro” or ”the nigger”. The racism in the courtroom was in fact so blatant that Berry managed to get another trial. In 1961 the appeal was conducted, ending in three years in prison for Berry (he served 20 months of his sentence).

When he was released his creative momentum had passed, and he never returned to the charts. He was also a changed man: bitter, suspicious and quiet, another rock legend who knew him well, Carl Perkins, stated.

To be seen as guilty until innocence have been proved, have for a long time been an everyday experience for black men in the US. It happened recently in Ferguson (ironically enough in the very same city that Berry still calls home.)

Strangely enough this thinking seems to flourish even the Swedish court, who chooses to repeat the racially biased accusations against the singer and guitarist, half a century after the claims first was made by the St Louis prosecutor.

The conclusions of all this is obvious: Queen Silvia and Princess Madeleine owe Chuck Berry an apology.

 

Sources:

Bruce Pegg: Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry

Henry Louis Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham: African American Lives

Melissa Hope Ditmore: Prostitution and Sex Work

Langum, David J: Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act