The Rise and Fall of an All-American Catchphrase: 'Free, White, and 21'

In Depth

She was a young society woman. He was an enigmatic stranger. They’d just met at a speakeasy and as dusk set in were parked lakeside in his roadster to get better acquainted.

“You mind if we stay here a while,” he asked, “or must you go home?”

She pulled back, eyes wide, insulted.

“There are no musts in my life,” she said, “I’m free, white, and 21.”

Poor choice of words, but only because the guy was a fugitive from a chain gang. It’s right there in the title of the movie: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Otherwise, neither he nor the assumed audience would have thought much more of the expression. It was a catchphrase of the decade, as blandly ubiquitous as any modern meme: a way for white America to check its own privilege and feel exhilarated rather than finding fault.

“Free, white, and 21” appeared in dozens of movies in the ’30s and ’40s, a proud assertion that positioned white privilege as the ultimate argument-stopper. The current state of contention over the existence and shape of white privilege weaves back into the story of this catchphrase: its rise, its heyday, and how it disappeared. White America learned the same lesson as the society woman saying “free, white and 21” to the fugitive: you can’t be sure to whom you are speaking. Every time a movie character uttered this phrase so casually, they were giving black America a glimpse into the real character of American democracy. Decades before it came to a head, they inadvertently fed the civil rights struggle. The solution to this problem would be quintessentially Hollywood, and thus quintessentially American—a combination of censorship and propaganda that would erase “free, white, and 21” from films, from public life, and nearly even from national memory.

The saying emerged around 1828, when property ownership was removed as a prerequisite for suffrage, and voters needed only be free, white, and 21 (and also, it needn’t be said, male). It should have died with the passing of the 15th amendment in 1870, but of course racism is stronger than the law, and by the end of the century, legislators were working to bring the two back into harmony. In 1898, when Louisiana put forward its version of the grandfather clause, a judge asserted that the new legislation was simply a way of maintaining the “right of manhood,” deserved of all men “free, white, and twenty-one.”

Yet it took women to popularize the phrase—or fictional women at least. The expression figures in romance narratives starting as early as 1856. Later, Dorothy Dix, the nation’s first advice columnist, would recycle it, directed to young women. If the primary sphere of influence for the white male was in the voting booth, for the disenfranchised white woman it was the home. Her privilege was narrow but vital: to choose which white male to share it with.

Or, in envelope-pushing pre-code Hollywood dramas, how many. The 1931 film Strangers May Kiss presented itself as an experiment in whether women could possibly have romance without marriage. When the heroine’s aunt urges her to abandon a fling and settle, she answers, “I’m free, white, and 21, and I know my own mind.” As the ads made clear, the phrase was key not just to the film but also to a new type of woman: Hollywood made over 100 of these “fallen woman” films during the ’30s and ’40s, almost always with punishment coming for the woman in the end.

These unhappy endings ensured that, although the phrase may sound like a (decidedly non-intersectional) declaration of independence coming from any given character, the “free, white, and 21” women were not really free at all. The phrase often functioned as a sign that whatever the character was going after wouldn’t work out how she would like. The woman in I Am a Fugitive sounds a fool; the young girl in The Glass Key (1942) who insists on her right to date a degenerate gambler finds him dead; the lady in Cry “Havoc” (1943) who justifies flirting with another woman’s boyfriend learns the two are secretly married; the American woman in Foolish Wives (1922) defends flirting with a Count who reveals himself as fraudulent and leaves her to die in a fire.

The layer of irony over the catchphrase remains inaccessible to the female characters themselves. The phrase tests them, teases them, tends to find them undeserving. In The Singing Hill (1941), a young woman is initially told she’s “free, white, and long about 21,” but when she tries to exercise her will and sell some land, she’s kidnapped, declared mentally incompetent by a judge, and, after coming around, spanked. Even when women aren’t punished for uttering it, there’s often something silly about them doing so, as in the 1934 musical Dames, in which Ruby Keeler cutely uses the phrase to declare her right to perform in a show against the wishes of her father: “I’m free, white, and 21. I love to dance, and I’m going to dance.”

And so, “free, white, and 21” was as much about power denied as asserted. Women used it more often precisely because their freedom was restricted. Men would use it too, whenever challenged. In That Certain Woman (1937), Henry Fonda tells of his desire to work up the courage to use the phrase against his domineering father. In real life, Henry Ford used it in 1919 to justify defying his stockholders. The saying was an assertion of will, of the rights of identity—only some were better positioned to capitalize on this than others. To some extent, the expression created its own truth, gave itself currency. The traits it named had the power to open doors; asserting them, even more so. These want ads from the early ’40s read like a parody of the privileges conferred by whiteness:

The phrase was everywhere, and Hollywood, as eager then as now to capitalize on a catchphrase, embraced it. (You can tell how eager by the fact that none of the books on which these movies were based included the saying.) In fact, three times during this era, movies were slated to use it as a title. Yet each of them, along with an adjacent fourth (“Free, White, and Desperate”) was re-named before appearing on a marquee. It was apparently best keeping that message inside.

The turning point for Angela Murray, the light-skinned heroine of Jesse Redmon Fausset’s 1928 novel Plum Bun, comes at the entrance of a movie theater. The usher accepts Angela’s ticket without a second thought, but then her darker-skinned date, a few steps behind her, is denied entry. After a humiliating moment with the pair split at the entry, they walk away together. The incident is so demeaning that Angela resolves to abandon her community in Philadelphia and pass as a white woman. Soon living in a new city and on other side of the color line, the cliché strikes her: “She remembered an expression ‘free, white and twenty-one,’—this was what it meant then, this sense of owning the world, this realization that other things being equal, all things were possible.” Angela starts going repeatedly to the movies, and for the first time is able to identify with the characters.

The people using “free, white, and 21” weren’t just speaking to themselves, whether they realized it or not. Although theaters were segregated, black America was entertained by Hollywood as well, making the phrase not just a personal declaration but also a public insult—and worse, for Angela, one more indignity corrupting her relationship with her community and herself.

White newspapers said nothing about this. But when the phrase began appearing in movie after movie, the black press took notice. “There seems to be a tendency on the part of the moving picture industry to use the above phrase at every slight opportunity,” wrote Walter L. Lowe beneath the headline “Free, White, and 21” in the Chicago Defender in 1935. He wasn’t sure whether Hollywood used it because it was considered “timely and clever” or because it “further inflates the ego of their white patrons,” but, he continued:

Why, he wondered, would studios keep using a phrase that was “unfair,” “unsportsmanlike,” and, with “3,000,000 colored American moving picture lovers,” likely unprofitable? The saying, he concluded, “cannot substantially add anything to the pleasure of white moving picture-goers,” yet it “can detract considerably from the serenity and the pleasure of the colored people.”

Lowe wrote reservedly, hurt by the phrase but willing to reason with Hollywood, to help them see the damage they were doing. And that damage was certainly real. In a forum discussing the phrase online, a man describes his mother’s experience as a young black girl in Philadelphia when she “stormed out of [a] movie house after hearing the Ruby Keeler monologue [in Dames], promising never to watch another film with her in it again.… she was again agitated when another film-dancer she really liked, Gin Rogers, made the same statement [in Kitty Foyle]. Another one she and her friends boycotted: forever.”

As Ellen Scott shows in her fascinating new book Cinema Civil Rights, censors really were as indifferent to the feelings of African-Americans as the use of this phrase suggests. “I don’t think it matters whether the negroes like the picture or not,” reads a memo from a chief Hollywood censor in 1930 about an all-black film, Hallelujah! If they eliminated racist notes in their films, it was often as not because they knew whites would prefer not to have the reminders. Anti-lynching films could be made, but it was best to hide the violence and sometimes even cast white victims. If they feared causing offense, it was only because they feared a riot might result. To be on the safe side, they might cut lines prior to production, or they might just offer different cuts of the same movie to audiences in Harlem and downtown Manhattan.

For many members of the African-American press, this general indifference to “3,000,000 colored Americans” was all to the better. When they heard this phrase in movies, they heard Hollywood and white America simply giving the game away. In 1931, a Pittsburgh Courier writer described the use of the expression in Strangers May Kiss as a “fairly accurate index to the Nordic mentality.” The saying was used “by whites of every description and kind to illustrate their superiority and ownership of all they survey.”

“It is just this kind of a conviction” the writer concluded, that would “eventually bring down his temple of conceit upon his own head.”

Brutally honest and brutally funny, the Black press found the phrase an able tool in their task, as their FBI antagonists put it, of “holding America up to ridicule.” The gap between America’s ideals and its actuality was a persistent source of indignant glee for these papers, as the header image for a regular item in the Chicago Defender illustrates:

They approached the saying from every angle. When President Roosevelt used it about his son in 1933, the Baltimore Afro-American noted with beautiful faux-naivety: “His use of the pre-Civil War expression … isn’t particularly apropos, we take it, in these days when all Americans are free and color is no barrier to citizenship.” In 1937, after noting that “When Hollywood represents colored men on a film, nine times out of ten they are shown shooting dice,” the Afro-American was pleased to report that a recent raid had revealed that a dice game club had “a membership of 1000 New York policemen, all of them free, white, and twenty-one.” When some pre-21 white men from suburban Pittsburgh were given a slap on the wrist for causing a public disturbance and punching the arresting cops in 1958, the Courier noted that “It pays to be free, white, and from Sewickley.” (“It’s Not What you Do But Who You Are!” read the headline.)

The African-American press also used the saying to critique the contours of the privileges being asserted. Leftist critics at these papers saw the expression as another tool of capitalist oppression. “As the distance between the poor whites and the rich whites widens,” the Philadelphia Tribune noted in 1930, the former will have “nothing to look forward to in life save the dubious satisfaction of being free, white, and twenty-one,” a privilege that is “considerable when there is no other” but nonetheless serves primarily to keep them from growing “restive under exploitation.” In 1930, when two Northern college professors were beaten for attending a mixed-race Communist gathering in Memphis, an Afro-American headline noted that they were “‘White’ but not ‘Free and 21.’” And just how free were people with these traits, another story asked, if they still couldn’t “conduct the most simple bit of business with a colored man or woman”?

Not only was “free, white, and 21” undermining America’s pretensions to equality at home; it was also hurting the country on the world stage. In 1941, a writer for the Afro-American reported that, during a screening in Havana of Kitty Foyle—a movie in which that year’s best actress winner Ginger Rogers declared that she was “free, white, and twenty-one”—the translators felt compelled to omit “white” from the subtitles. Later in the movie, Kitty rejects an offer of marriage on account of her suitor’s superior social class. When he suggests there has to be something more to it, she jokes, “We’re both the same color, if that’s what you mean.” Again, the subtitles altered the line. It wasn’t so funny if the joke was on American democracy.

Hollywood’s censors just didn’t see the bigger picture, so as World War II began, the United States’ new propaganda arm, the Office of War Information, intervened. Amazingly, the US government showed greater racial sensitivity than Hollywood, repeatedly urging film producers to cut back on offensive stereotypes. But then again, the government had a better read on how bad things were. A poll of African-Americans in 1942 showed that 49 percent of respondents thought they would be treated as well or even better under a Japanese government. The OWI also knew what the Afro-American had foreseen—that films were making us look bad abroad. They insisted on cutting references to “white” and “colored” signs in films and denied foreign distribution to Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) because it depicted American mob violence. And although the military was segregated, they encouraged films that portrayed integrated ranks. The message: we didn’t need to fix our problems as much as keep them from the neighbors.

Ellen Scott told me she found no references to this phrase in the censorship records she consulted, but it seems safe to assume the government’s heightened attention to America’s reputation led to its downfall. I could only find the saying used in one movie after 1943 for the next 16 years, and that, tellingly, was a B-picture. There is also at least some record of the expression being specifically banned. In 1951, a writer for the Defender, again mocking the world’s “Caucasian minority” for “dwelling in this fool’s paradise … that he owns the world and all the peoples in it,” noted that “it was just a few years ago” that Eric Johnston, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, “issued an order forbidding screen stars to use the line: ‘I’m free, white, and twenty-one.’ Such arrogant assumptions on the part of a minority in world status is bound to bring reprisals, and Russia has seized upon this weakness in our democracy to exploit it.”

Johnston seems to have been genuine in his opposition to racism, but he was also a blacklist-making crusader against Communism who emphasized the importance of American films as propaganda behind the Iron Curtain. The African-American press had enjoyed pointing out that Adolf Hitler admired America’s discriminatory policies, and as the next great conflict got under way, there was a widespread effort to keep such evidence from view. “When so much depends on preserving and extending American democracy,” an item in the journal American Speech noted in 1949, phrases like “free, white, and 21” would have to be eliminated.

And everyone did their part. “Free, white, and 21” pretty much died.

Abandoning the phrase came almost too easily. In 1952, after moving from an independent label to Capitol records, country singer Rod Morris turned his earlier song “Free, White, and 21” into “Free, Wise, and 21.” The same substitution occurs early on in the 1953 noir, City that Never Sleeps. It was that simple. Just trade a few phonemes and the offense vanishes. The rest of the country wised up just as quickly. Newspaper usages of the saying almost completely dried up by the end of the ’60s. With Malcolm X now discussing it, the phrase was clearly too dangerous to hang onto. Suddenly, the hatred buried in the old expression was apparent not only to the African-American press but to the white papers as well; in 1963, the New York Times ran a cartoon of a wizened Klan member captioned “Free, white and going on 101.”

And these words that had been an innocuous feature of mainstream films a generation earlier were now being investigated on Hollywood’s outskirts. The 1963 exploitation flick, Free, White, and 21 centers on a trial over the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man. If the phrase was often about freedom of romantic choice, the film highlighted how constricted that choice really was.

It was a theme worked more artfully in the 1959 movie The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, in which Harry Belafonte emerges from five days spent in a collapsed mine to discover that chemical war has exterminated the rest of humanity—except for a young blonde woman. Yet he doesn’t see her right away; she tails him for weeks because she’s too afraid to make contact. When they finally do meet, however, they make fast friends. Things go great until a moment of tension, when a rainstorm keeps them cooped up inside together. As an argument begins, he tells her she needs to relieve her stress by keeping busy. She snaps: “I’m free, white, and 21, and I’m gonna do what I please!”

Isolated in the frame as she speaks, she re-enacts the unthinking, glib renditions of this phrase over decades of film history. Then the film cuts to Belafonte, silently registering her words, re-enacting the position of decades of those “3,000,000 colored Americans” described by Walter Lowe in 1935. Yet whereas Lowe’s message wasn’t heard by Hollywood, Belafonte soon tells her just what it meant to him: “A little while ago, you said you were ‘free, white, and 21.’ That didn’t mean anything to you, just an expression you’ve heard for a thousand times. Well to me it was an arrow in my guts!”

The chemistry between the two—and the simple fact that they are, as far as they know, the only people on the planet—should drive them to romance. But instead the legacy of the racial past keeps them apart. It goes deeper than the phrase. Yes, she seems to adore him, but Belafonte knows it took mass extinction for her to consider him as a romantic object. Although her love seems genuine, she can’t deny the truth of this.

The film, viewed then or now, is a chilling picture of the powerful reach of racism. Even after the traditional structures it infuses have been wiped away, racism lives in the damage done to those it has oppressed and the unthinking outlooks of those it has benefited. Until he hears the phrase “free, white, and 21,” Belafonte is in a state of uncertainty; he still perceives that racism is structuring this new world, but he has no evidence. The statement thus proves at once liberating and demeaning. He knew white supremacy wouldn’t just disappear that easily; he has just had that reality confirmed. The phrase itself is just a bland cliché, and he can call it such—but it nonetheless exposes a network of assumptions, a connection to a more dangerous, more explicitly racist past, that had been submerged in this new world.

Today, “free, white, and 21” is barely heard. It has no place in public life, no place in movies, except the occasional one set in the past. You can find vestiges on Twitter, usually from young women hearing it from an elder and apparently thinking it’s just their quirky ways and not the remnants of a way of life. But it’s basically dead. It was too dangerous. It made America look bad overseas and whites look bad domestically. Now it’s no longer around to do such harms, which is a sign of racial progress, but also, like any sign, distinct from the thing itself. Racism is rarely so brazen any more.

It’s a lot easier to kill off a phrase than change the system that gave it life. We can lower a racist flag, but it’s harder to get rid of the sentiments that raised it. “Free, white, and 21” lasted a hundred years after it had any official legal meaning. Why should we expect it to die just because the words have?

Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.

Images from MGM, the Chicago Defender, the New York Times, American International Pictures. Video by Andrew Heisel

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