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Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

Written by Danielle L. McGuireAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Danielle L. McGuire

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On Sale: September 07, 2010
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59447-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

Rosa Parks was often described as a sweet and reticent elderly woman whose tired feet caused her to defy segregation on Montgomery’s city buses, and whose supposedly solitary, spontaneous act sparked the 1955 bus boycott that gave birth to the civil rights movement.

The truth of who Rosa Parks was and what really lay beneath the 1955 boycott is far different from anything previously written.

In this groundbreaking and important book, Danielle McGuire writes about the rape in 1944 of a twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, Recy Taylor, who strolled toward home after an evening of singing and praying at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama. Seven white men, armed with knives and shotguns, ordered the young woman into their green Chevrolet, raped her, and left her for dead. The president of the local NAACP branch office sent his best investigator and organizer to Abbeville. Her name was Rosa Parks. In taking on this case, Parks launched a movement that ultimately changed the world.

The author gives us the never-before-told history of how the civil rights movement began; how it was in part started in protest against the ritualistic rape of black women by white men who used economic intimidation, sexual violence, and terror to derail the freedom movement; and how those forces persisted unpunished throughout the Jim Crow era when white men assaulted black women to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy. Black women’s protests against sexual assault and interracial rape fueled civil rights campaigns throughout the South that began during World War II and went through to the Black Power movement. The Montgomery bus boycott was the baptism, not the birth, of that struggle.

At the Dark End of the Street
describes the decades of degradation black women on the Montgomery city buses endured on their way to cook and clean for their white bosses. It reveals how Rosa Parks, by 1955 one of the most radical activists in Alabama, had had enough. “There had to be a stopping place,” she said, “and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around.” Parks refused to move from her seat on the bus, was arrested, and, with fierce activist Jo Ann Robinson, organized a one-day bus boycott.

The protest, intended to last twenty-four hours, became a yearlong struggle for dignity and justice. It broke the back of the Montgomery city bus lines and bankrupted the company.

We see how and why Rosa Parks, instead of becoming a leader of the movement she helped to start, was turned into a symbol of virtuous black womanhood, sainted and celebrated for her quiet dignity, prim demeanor, and middle-class propriety—her radicalism all but erased. And we see as well how thousands of black women whose courage and fortitude helped to transform America were reduced to the footnotes of history.

A controversial, moving, and courageous book; narrative history at its best.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Prologue



ON SEPTEMBER 3, 1944, the Rock Hill Holiness Church, in Abbeville, Alabama, rocked late into the night. It was nearly midnight when the doors of the wooden, one-story church swung open releasing streams of worshippers, all African American, into the moonlight. After a night of singing and praying, Recy Taylor, Fannie Daniel, and Daniel’s eighteen year- old son, West, stepped out of the country chapel and strolled toward home alongside the peanut plantations that bounded the Abbeville-Headland highway. Taylor, a slender, copper-colored, and beautiful twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, noticed a rattletrap green Chevrolet pass them at least three times, young white men gawking from its windows.

“You reckon what they are up to?” Taylor asked.

Taylor and Daniel, a stout sixty- one- year- old woman, watched the car creep by one last time and roll to a stop a few feet ahead of them. Seven men, armed with knives and guns, got out of the car and walked toward the women. Herbert Lovett, the oldest of the crew at twenty- four and a private in the U.S. Army, shouted, “Halt!”

When they ignored the order, Lovett leveled his shotgun. West tugged at his mother’s sleeve, begging her to stop. “They might shoot you,” he whispered.

As the circle of men closed in, Lovett waved his gun at Taylor.

“We’re looking for this girl, right there. She’s the one that cut that white boy in Clopton this evening,” Lovett said, adding that the local sheriff, George H. Gamble, had dispatched the group to find the alleged assailant.

“You’re wrong,” Fannie insisted. “She’s been to my house all day.”

The men crowded closer, nodding their heads in agreement. “Ain’t this her?” Lovett asked.

“Yep, this the one,” Joe Culpepper said. “I know her by the clothes she got on.”

“That’s her,” Luther Lee agreed. “Get her!”

Lovett lurched toward Taylor and grabbed her arm. Then he turned to West and asked if Taylor was his wife.

“No,” West replied, “she’s Willie Guy Taylor’s wife.” Undeterred, Lovett extended his hand to the teenager, ordered him to shake it, and promised not to hurt Taylor.

“We’re going to take her up here and see if Mr. Gamble knows her,” Lovett claimed. “If she’s not the one, we’ll bring her right back.”
As Lovett spoke, Taylor managed to wrest her arm from his grasp and bolted toward a stand of trees behind a cabin.1

“Come back! Come back!” Fannie yelled. “They going to shoot you. Come back!”

“Stop!” Lovett shouted. He cocked the gun at the back of her head. “I’ll kill you if you run.”

Lovett walked Taylor to the car and shoved her into the backseat. Three men piled in behind her, while four others squeezed into the front. The headlights switched off and the car crept away. After a few miles, the green sedan turned off the main highway, rattled down a red-clay tractor path into the woods, and stopped in a grove of pecan trees. “Y’all aren’t carrying me to Mr. Gamble,” Taylor shouted. The men in the backseat clasped her wrists and ordered her to be quiet. Lovett grabbed his gun and waved Taylor and his companions out of the car.

“Get them rags off,” he barked, pointing the shotgun at her, “or I’ll kill you and leave you down here in the woods.”

Sobbing, Taylor pulled off her clothes.

“Please,” she cried, “let me go home to my husband and my baby.”

Lovett spread an old hunting coat on the ground, told his friends to strip down to their socks and undershirts, and ordered Taylor to lie down.

Lovett passed his rifle to a friend and took off his pants. Hovering over the young mother, he snarled, “Act just like you do with your husband or I’ll cut your damn throat.”

. . .

Lovett was the first of six men to rape Taylor that night. When they finished, someone helped her get dressed, tied a handkerchief over her eyes, and shoved her back into the car. Back on the highway, the men stopped and ordered Taylor out of the car. “Don’t move until we get away from here,” one of them yelled. Taylor heard the car disappear into the night. She pulled off the blindfold, got her bearings, and began the long walk home.


A few days later, a telephone rang at the NAACP branch office in Montgomery, Alabama. E. D. Nixon, the local president, promised to send his best investigator to Abbeville. That investigator would launch a movement that would ultimately change the world.
Her name was Rosa Parks.


In later years, historians would paint Parks as a sweet and reticent old woman, whose tired feet caused her to defy Jim Crow on Montgomery’s city buses. Her solitary and spontaneous act, the story goes, sparked the 1955 bus boycott and gave birth to the civil rights movement. But Rosa Parks was a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an antirape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott. After meeting with Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice. With support from local people, she helped organize what the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” Eleven years later this group of homegrown leaders would become better known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement, was in many ways the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect black women, like Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.


The kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor was not unusual in the segregated South. The sexual exploitation of black women by white men had its roots in slavery and continued throughout the better part of the twentieth century.

When African Americans tested their freedom during Reconstruction, former slaveholders and their sympathizers used rape as a “weapon of terror” to dominate the bodies and minds of African-American men and women. Interracial rape was not only used to uphold white patriarchal power but was also deployed as a justification for lynching black men who challenged the Southern status quo. In addition to the immediate physical danger African Americans faced, sexual and racial violence functioned as a tool of coercion, control, and harassment. Ida B. Wells, the guntoting editor of the Memphis Free Press who led a crusade against lynching in the 1890s, argued that white men accused black men of rape as part of a larger “system of intimidation” designed to keep blacks “subservient and submissive.” Worse, Wells argued at the turn of the century, white men used the protection of white womanhood to “justify their own barbarism.”

The rape of black women by white men continued, often unpunished, throughout the Jim Crow era. As Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow arose, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity. White men lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work, or church; raped them as a form of retribution or to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy; sexually humiliated and assaulted them on streetcars and buses, in taxicabs and trains, and in other public spaces. As the acclaimed freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “A black woman’s body was never hers alone.”

Black women did not keep their stories secret. African- American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults. They launched the first public attacks on sexual violence as a “systemic abuse of women” in response to slavery and the wave of lynchings in the post-Emancipation South. Slave narratives offer stark testimony about the brutal sexual exploitation bondswomen faced. For example, Harriet Jacobs detailed her master’s lechery in her autobiography to “arouse the women of the North” and “convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is.” When African- American clubwomen began to organize antilynching campaigns during the late nineteenth century, they testified about decades of sexual abuse. On October 5, 1892, hundreds of black women converged on Lyric Hall in New York City to hear Ida B. Wells’s thunderous voice. While black men were being accused of ravishing white women, she argued, “The rape of helpless Negro girls, which began in slavery days, still continues without reproof from church, state or press.“ At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Fannie Barrier Williams told an audience of black and white clubwomen about the “shameful fact that I am constantly in receipt of letters from the still unprotected women of the South. . . .” Anna Julia Cooper, a Washington, D.C., educator, author, and respected clubwoman, echoed Williams’s testimony. Black women, she told the crowd, were engaged in a “painful, patient, and silent toil . . . to gain title to the bodies of their daughters.”

Throughout the twentieth century, black women persisted in telling their stories, frequently cited in local and national NAACP reports. Their testimonies spilled out in letters to the Justice Department and appeared on the front pages of the nation’s leading black newspapers. Black women regularly denounced their sexual misuse. By deploying their voices as weapons in the wars against white supremacy, whether in the church, the courtroom, or in congressional hearings, African- American women loudly resisted what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “thingification” of their humanity. Decades before radical feminists in the women’s movement urged rape survivors to “speak out,” African-American women’s public protests galvanized local, national, and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. When Recy Taylor spoke out against her assailants and Rosa Parks and her allies in Montgomery mobilized in defense of her womanhood in 1944, they joined
this tradition of testimony and protest.

Montgomery, Alabama, was not the only place in which attacks on black women fueled protests against white supremacy. Between 1940 and 1975, sexual violence and interracial rape became one crucial battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy. Civil rights campaigns in Little Rock, Arkansas; Macon, Georgia; Tallahassee, Florida; Washington, North Carolina; Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and many other places had roots in organized resistance to sexual violence and appeals for protection of black womanhood.

And yet analyses of rape and sexualized violence play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, which present it as a struggle between black and white men—the heroic leadership of Martin Luther King confronting intransigent white supremacists like “Bull” Connor. The real story—that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long struggle against sexual violence—has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the Dark End of the Street does both.

It is no surprise that buses became the target of African- American resistance in Montgomery during the 1955–56 boycott. It was much easier, not to mention safer, for black women to stop riding the buses than it was to bring their assailants—usually white policemen or bus drivers—to justice. By walking hundreds of miles to protest humiliation and testifying publicly about physical and sexual abuse, black women reclaimed their bodies and demanded to be treated with dignity and respect. Coupling new historical evidence with a fresh perspective, Chapters 2 and 3 reveal the history of the Montgomery campaign as a women’s movement
for dignity.

Issues of sexual violence were crucial both to the civil rights movement and to the white supremacist resistance. Segregationists responded to the nascent African-American freedom movement with a sexually charged campaign of terror to derail the freedom movement. Between 1956 and 1960, black Southerners braved the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Council, and other extremist groups, sparking some of the fiercest struggles for black humanity of the modern civil rights movement. These battles, highlighted in Chapter 4, exposed the power of sex in maintaining the South’s racial hierarchy and underscored the extent to which whites
would fight to preserve it.

Often ignored by civil rights historians, a number of campaigns led to trials and even convictions throughout the South. These cases, many virtually unknown, broke with Southern tradition and fractured the philosophical and political foundations of white supremacy by challenging the relationship between sexual domination and racial equality.

Nowhere was this more apparent and more important than in Tallahassee, Florida, where Betty Jean Owens, an African-American college student, stood in front of an all- white jury in 1959 and testified about being kidnapped and gang-raped by four white men. The extraordinary trial, the subject of Chapter 5, focused national attention on the sexual exploitation of African-American women. For perhaps the first time since Reconstruction, black Southerners could imagine government as a defender of their manhood and womanhood. The Tallahassee case led to rape convictions elsewhere that year in Montgomery, Alabama; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Burton, South Carolina. The 1959 Tallahassee rape was a watershed case that remains as revealing now as it was important then.

Black women’s testimonies revealed their vulnerability across the South, especially in Mississippi. Most accounts of the Mississippi movement focus on racist brutality directed at men—from Emmett Till and Medgar Evers to Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. Chapter 6 challenges the dominant historical narrative of the Mississippi freedom struggle by documenting black women’s resistance to racial and sexual abuse.

The 1965 Selma, Alabama, campaign, like the Montgomery movement, has an important history rooted in sexualized violence that historians have not yet explored. Federal intervention and congressional action on behalf of African Americans in 1964 and 1965—especially the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act—constituted the most dangerous threat to white dominion and left segregationists reeling. But the segregationists fired back with traditional ammunition of sexual slander and the “black beast rapist.” Chapter 7 documents how white supremacists in Selma and across the South used the rhetoric of rape and “miscegenation” to resuscitate and revive massive resistance, underscoring the importance of sex and sexual violence to the maintenance of white supremacy. Civil rights activists were not only “outside agitators” or Communists intent on destroying the Southern way of life; now they were sexual fiends. It was within this storm—and because of it—that the Ku Klux Klan murdered Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit who embraced the black freedom struggle. Her detractors, of course, accused her of embracing black men.

An analysis of sex and sexualized violence in well- known civil rights narratives changes the historical markers and meanings of the movement. Like the Tallahassee case, the 1965 trial of Norman Cannon, a white man who abducted and raped a black teenager in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, had broad implications for both the Mississippi movement and the African-American freedom struggle as a whole. The verdict was recognized nationally as a major victory. It ought to be considered one of the bookends of the modern civil rights movement. And yet the story has never been told. While the Voting Rights Act is often referenced as the culminating achievement of the modern civil rights movement, a pillar of white supremacy fell in 1967 when the Supreme Court banned laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision. Only when we place the Loving decision within the long struggle for black women’s bodily integrity and freedom from racial and sexual terror can it be properly recognized as a major marker in the African-American freedom movement.

The struggle did not stop with that landmark victory. The right of African-American women to defend themselves from white men’s sexual advances was tested in the 1975 trial of Joan Little, a twenty-year-old black female inmate from Washington, North Carolina, who killed her white jailer after he allegedly sexually assaulted her. The broad coalition of supporters who rallied to Little’s defense—from the National Organization for Women to the Black Panther Party—reflected the enormous social, political, and economic changes wrought by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the emergence of the New Left and Black Power. But it also showed continuity with the past—the Free Joan Little movement mirrored the eclectic coalition that formed to demand justice for Recy Taylor in 1944. They were both led primarily by African-American women and helped serve as catalysts for larger struggles. The stunning verdict, announced by a jury made up of whites and blacks, signaled the death knell of the rape of black women that had been a feature of Southern race politics since slavery.

Like the kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944; Betty Jean Owens in 1959; Rosa Lee Coates in 1965; and hundreds of other African-American women throughout the segregated South, these brutal attacks almost always began at the dark end of the street. But African Americans would never let them stay there.


From the Hardcover edition.
Danielle L. McGuire|Author Q&A

About Danielle L. McGuire

Danielle L. McGuire - At the Dark End of the Street

Photo © Brett Mountain Photography, LLC

Danielle L. McGuire was born in Janesville, Wisconsin. She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and received her Ph.D. from Rutgers University. She is an assistant professor in the History Department at Wayne State University and lives in Detroit, Michigan.

Author Q&A

Q: When did you first realize that this was a story you had to tell?
 
A: When I figured out that black women had been enduring, resisting and testifying about interracial sexual violence for years and that these crucial and revealing moments had never made their way into the history of the civil rights movement.
 
My first sense that historians had missed a large story was in the winter of 1998. I was a graduate student and was listening to NPR. Veterans of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott were speaking about their experiences and Joe Azbell, the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser talked about a woman I had never heard of. He said something like, “Gertrude Perkins is never mentioned in the history books, but she had as much to do with the bus boycott as anyone on earth.” I was confused. Everyone knows Rosa Parks was the one who caused the boycott, so who was Perkins and what did she do? I went to the archive and ordered the Montgomery Advertiser on microfilm and started searching. I found out that two white police officers kidnapped and raped Gertrude Perkins, a black woman, in 1949. Local black activists rallied to her defense and launched a major campaign to bring the assailants to trial. I was not sure what to do with this information—how to fit it into a story that was already so well known. I couldn’t see how it connected until I started digging a little deeper. I was in the process of researching the 1959 gang-rape of Betty Jean Owens, a black college student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida when I kept coming across similar cases of white men attacking black women throughout the Deep South. It seemed as if every front page of every black newspaper between 1940 and 1950 featured the same story: a black woman was walking home from school, work or church when a group of white men abducted her at gunpoint, took her outside of town, and brutally assaulted her. I began digging through court files and the evidence showed that white on black rape was endemic in the segregated South. Black women were vulnerable to racial and sexual violence and they often testified about their experiences—in churches, courtrooms, and congressional hearings. Their testimonies often led to civil rights campaigns that began with a simple demand for justice and became a struggle for human rights and human dignity. This was true in Montgomery as well as other major movement centers. 
 
Black women had been telling their stories for years and it seemed to me that no one was listening.


Q: What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?
 
A: The biggest single discovery was in the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. That’s where I found concrete evidence connecting Rosa Parks and Recy Taylor, and showing that the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor in 1944 was the kernel that eleven years later became the Montgomery Improvement Association, launched the bus boycott and lifted Martin Luther King, Jr. to world-historical status. I was completely shocked to find Parks’s petitions and postcards demanding justice for Taylor, because it had never been part of the story. It made me rethink what I thought I knew about Rosa Parks and helped me begin to think about the bus boycott in a new way.
 
I am still surprised and saddened by the alarming regularity of white on black rape in the segregated South. When I first started this research twelve years ago, I was focused on the 1959 attack on Betty Jean Owens in Tallahassee. I really didn’t think I’d find other cases. But once I began searching, I realized it happened all the time.
 
 
Q: Why do you think that so much of the history you reveal in this book has been absent from previous histories of the civil rights movement?
 
A: I think there are a couple of reasons. First, I think our own discomfort and silences surrounding sexual violence hinder our work as historians. For example, we don’t ask civil rights veterans questions about rape or other kinds of sexual violence because we assume they don’t want talk about it. We assume silence even though black women testified publicly about these crimes in the past. And so, I think some historians have just ignored the evidence. Second, historians have tended to focus on prominent civil rights organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, and SCLC; nationally recognized “leaders” like Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, etc.; major campaigns like the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, King’s 1963 Birmingham campaign, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, or the 1965 voting rights march in Selma; and the role of Congress and the President in passing laws to advance African American equality.
 
When there is a focus on racial violence, it is almost always directed at black men. Historians have assumed that black women were safer and less vulnerable to racial violence than black men. And that may be true in cases of lynching, though black women were certainly lynch victims, but not when we look at sexual violence.
 
There have been some really incredible studies of grassroots movements that highlight the organizing efforts of ordinary people—especially the leadership and experiences of black women—that expand our understanding of the African American freedom struggle. These studies certainly helped me rethink the movement as a whole, and encouraged many of us to think about the human side of the movement, so I think that we are finally starting to get a more realistic and thorough sense of the civil rights movement and the people who made it happen.
 
 
Q: One of the key points that you emphasize is that sexualized violence and rape had been engrained within race relations in the U.S. since the days of slavery. How did segregationists use this dynamic in their efforts to oppose integration?
 
A: They turned it on its head. They projected their own crimes and deviant behaviors onto black men and women in order to maintain their own political, economic, and social power. Whenever African Americans asserted themselves as human beings or demanded citizenship rights granted by the Constitution, white Southerners—from Reconstruction through the 1960s—used myths of black men as rapists and white fears of “miscegenation” to derail and destroy African American freedom struggles.
 
 
Q: You open the book with an account of the brutal gang rape of a young mother named Recy Taylor. You’ve actually spoken with her and her family. How did you find them?
 
A: Incredibly, they found me. Robert Corbitt, Recy’s youngest brother, spent decades trying to dig up information on his sister’s assailants. He combed through old files at the courthouse and scanned microfilm of Abbeville’s newspaper at the library searching for clues—dates, names etc. He asked friends and neighbors what they remembered. He never forgot about what those white men did to his sister; to his whole family. Over time the pain and trauma of the assault, not to mention the injustice, dulled, but never disappeared. One day he searched “Recy Taylor” on his computer and my name appeared. I was giving a presentation at the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina and there was a poster announcing the event on their website. He emailed me and I called him immediately. We talked many times on the phone throughout the fall and winter of 2008. I met him and Recy and their extended family in Abbeville, Alabama the same day Barack Obama took the oath of office as the first African American president. I am so grateful Recy felt comfortable telling me her story and that her entire family recounted their memories of both the crime and what life was like during Jim Crow. It was an emotional and powerful meeting that I will never forget.
 
 
Q: One of the great strengths of At the Dark End of the Street is the attention you pay to individual lives and personal stories. Did you find that people were willing to talk to you freely about their experiences?
 
A: Yes. Which makes it even more shocking that most histories of the civil rights movement ignore issues related to sexualized racial violence. Not only did women tell me their stories, they had been telling them to all kinds of people—for decades. Read the front page of any black newspaper during the Jim Crow period and you will find endless testimony by black women about being sexually propositioned, harassed, beaten and raped by white men throughout the South. There were, of course, some women who did not want to talk or rehash a painful period in their lives. But most of the women I interviewed spoke freely about their experiences. Some seemed relieved of a heavy burden; some are still hurt and angry; and almost all of them still hope that justice will prevail.


Q: Aside from Rosa Parks, who were some of the other most prominent female organizers of the time? How did their early efforts help lead to the Montgomery bus boycott?
 
A: Perhaps the most prominent female organizer in the civil rights movement was Ella Baker. She had a hand in nearly every mass march, boycott, voter registration campaign, sit-in, protest movement, etc. from 1940 through the late 1960s. There are two good scholarly books about Baker, and historians generally appreciate her importance, but popular history has largely forgotten her.
 
In Montgomery, Jo Ann Robinson was an incredible organizer who probably did more to organize and sustain the yearlong bus boycott than anyone else. But the women who really made the boycott possible were those “nobodies from nowhere” as Georgia Gilmore, a local cook and activist put it. She was talking about the masses of working-class black women—domestics, cooks, service workers—who chose to walk endless miles every day instead of riding the buses to demand equal treatment, respect and human dignity. They made the boycott possible.
 
 
Q: Many of the campaigns these women organized were built to support victims of rape when their attackers were on trial. How did they select the cases that would have the most impact?
 
A: It was actually their organizational effort that often forced local white leaders to hold trials. Without pressure from African Americans and their allies on both the local and national level, there may not have been any court hearings at all.
 
Organizers and activists often rallied behind women who spoke out. When they made decisions about launching campaigns, they did so based on local circumstances—the threat of white retaliatory violence, the potential for justice, the ability and willingness of local organizations like the NAACP to provide support, publicity and much needed funds, the strength and character of the victim and her family, and so on. Every town in every state was different. And every year brought new opportunities or setbacks for equality.
 
 
Q: Black men accused of raping white women were frequently convicted and sentenced to death (even when there was very little evidence of rape or when the sex seemed to have been consensual), whereas white men accused of raping black women were often acquitted or given light sentences. When and how did the tide begin to turn?
 
A: There were always women who were willing to fight back and they often had support from family, friends, and community members. And there were always women who kept these tragedies to themselves. But there are moments in history when the pain of violation or the opportunity for justice forced women to speak out against their abusers. In this respect, the World War II period served as a watershed for the African American freedom struggle. At the same time that African Americans launched voter registration campaigns, sit-ins and boycotts, they also fought for basic dignity and bodily integrity. Black women’s testimony about sexual violence and the willingness of black leaders to protect black womanhood were part of the myriad resistance movements that began during that time. As a result, more white men were put on trial for the rape of black women in the 1940s and 1950s—and actually punished for their crimes. At a certain point—maybe after the 1959 Tallahassee, Florida case or the 1965 Hattiesburg, Mississippi case, white men in the segregated South may have realized they could no longer have access to black women’s bodies with impunity. Civil rights campaigns in Birmingham in 1963, Mississippi in 1964 and Selma in 1965 exposed the brutality of Jim Crow and helped weaken Americans’ tolerance for racist violence. And of course, the NAACP and their Legal Defense Fund spent significant energy and resources on exposing and ending the unequal sentencing in cases of sexual assault and rape. But we cannot forget that it was mostly black women, whose silent resistance and sometimes bold testimony helped to end a system of racialized sexual abuse that existed since slavery.
 
 
Q: Have you encountered any criticism for bringing these stories into the light?
 
A: Not really—most of the people I talk to are grateful the story is finally being told. There will always be some folks who are uncomfortable talking about the horrors of our past, especially sexual and racial violence. And I can understand that. But I think we need to confront our history honestly. Sexual violence was a critical part of the subjugation of African Americans in the South—in fact, it is endemic to systems of caste throughout world history. We can try to pretend that these brutal crimes did not happen, but they did. Many of the survivors I write about are still alive. Their assailants are still around—some are in jail, but most are free. For them, the past is, as William Faulkner put it, “not even past.” Some will undoubtedly think that retelling the rape stories is lurid and unnecessary, that it reifies the violence. But I cannot silence women today whose voices were so powerful and important then. In many ways, I am just offering them a megaphone. And I think it’s time we listen.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"Groundbreaking . . . inspiring."

—Bliss Broyard, ELLE


"One one of those rare studies that makes a well-known story seem startlingly new. Anyone who thinks he knows the history of the modern civil rights movement needs to read this terrifying, illuminating book."

—Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age, winner of the National Book Award.


"McGuire restores to memory the courageous black women who dared seek legal remedy, when black women and their families faced particular hazards for doing so. McGuire brings the reader through a dark time via a painful but somehow gratifying passage in this compelling, carefully documented work."
Publishers Weekly (starred)

"This gripping story changes the history books, giving us a revised Rosa Parks and a new civil rights story. You can’t write a general U.S. history without altering crucial sentences because of McGuire’s work. Masterfully narrated, At the Dark End of the Street presents a deep civil rights movement with women at the center, a narrative as poignant, painful and complicated as our own lives."
—Timothy B. Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story
 
"Just when we thought there couldn’t possibly be anything left to uncover about the civil rights movement, Danielle McGuire finds a new facet of that endlessly prismatic struggle at the core of our national identity. By reinterpreting black liberation through the lens of organized resistance to white male sexual aggression against African-American women, McGuire ingeniously upends the white race’s ultimate rationale for its violent subjugation of blacks—imputed black male sexual aggression against white women. It is an original premise, and At the Dark End of the Street delivers on it with scholarly authority and narrative polish."
—Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

 
"Following the lead of pioneers like Darlene Clark Hine, Danielle McGuire details the all too ignored tactic of rape of black women in the everyday practice of southern white supremacy. Just as important, she plots resistance against this outrage as an integral facet of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This book is as essential as its history is infuriating."
—Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People



From the Hardcover edition.
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