Confessions of a Guilty Bystander: Clay Shaw and Civil Rights Claims in a Homophobic Age

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:50 PM
Williford A (Hilton Chicago)
Alecia P. Long, Louisiana State University
On March 1, 1967 Clay L. Shaw was arrested and charged with participating in a conspiracy that led to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Until now, Shaw’s unfortunate historical placeholder is that he is the only person ever charged and tried in any of the myriad conspiracies alleged in the assassination of JFK. My forthcoming book, titled Crimes Against Nature: Sex, Violence, and the Search for Conspirators in the Assassination of JFK, puts Shaw’s legal ordeal in a longer context and shows its readers that the only way to understand the history and significance of Shaw’s 1967 arrest and 1969 trial is by seeing how his experience fits into the longer history of homosexuality in New Orleans and the United States. This presentation explores how Shaw’s appeals for federal assistance were complicated by his homosexuality. Whether or not he had conspired to assassinate President Kennedy, something he consistently denied, as a homosexual he was guilty of committing crimes going back many decades. Even though there was ample evidence to prove that his civil rights were being violated, Shaw’s legal team conspicuously avoided mentioning his sexuality in requests for assistance from Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and federal courts. Because of the timing, there was no language or legal precedent his defense could use to argue for federal assistance focused on his legal vulnerabilities as a homosexual. Nor were the courts willing to consider his homosexuality as a category in determining if he had been selected for prosecution on this basis, making his case an important one for thinking about the legal impact of those omissions in the pre-Stonewall era.