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Reviews in American History, Volume 40, Number 1, March 2012, pp.


122-127 (Review)
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DOI: 10.1353/rah.2012.0002

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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/rah/summary/v040/40.1.lee.html

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Civil Rights History Reframed


Chana Kai Lee
Danielle L. McGuire. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and
ResistanceA New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the
Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. xi + 324 pp. Illustrations,
notes, bibliography, and index. $27.95.
Danielle L. McGuire has written what she calls a new history of the civil
rights movement, one that surveys black womens resistance to sexual violence over roughly a thirty-year span, from 1944 to 1975. McGuire argues,
more persuasively in some cases than others, that there was an undeniable
connection between the crimes that these women endured, their individual
quests for justice, and the broad historical event known as the civil rights
movement. Without question, many historians have glossed over a major
experience for the era, and McGuire makes a forceful case for reevaluating
histories of postwar social protest from the perspective of black women, rape,
and resistance.
In rescuing this history, McGuire recasts familiar events and personalities in new and provocative ways, the most notable being the Montgomery
Bus Boycott and the figure of Rosa Parks, whom McGuire concludes was a
militant race woman, a sharp detective, and antirape activist long before
she became the patron saint of the bus boycott (p. xvii). Indeed, more than a
decade before her December 1, 1955 arrest, Parks offered her help to a young
mother and sharecropper. On September 3, 1944, six white menincluding a
U.S. army privatekidnapped and raped twenty-fouryear-old Recy Taylor
in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. Armed with guns and knives, the
men drove her into the woods, forced her to undress (Get them rags off)
and took turns raping her. At one point, the driver ordered her to act just
like you do with your husband or Ill cut your damn throat. After brutalizing
her repeatedly, they drove her back toward a main highway, where they left
her to walk back to town. Dazed and humiliated, she found her way back to
family, friends, and the local sheriffat which point, according to McGuire,
she performed her first act of resistance: she told what happened. One of the
first individuals to document her experience was Rosa Parks, who traveled to
Abbeville to interview Taylor in preparation for a collective response based in
Reviews in American History 40 (2012) 122127 2012 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

LEE / Civil Rights History Reframed

123

Montgomery. As secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, Parks was responsible


for recording cases of discrimination and violence for the organization.
Recy Taylors rape was a catalyst unseen in the state of Alabama. The African American community organized an all-out effort in pursuit of justice for
Recy Taylor and, symbolically, for the scores of other sexually abused black
women unknown to history. The auspicious response was well coordinated
and full of fight and resolve. From Abbeville and Montgomery to Chicago,
Harlem, and Washington, D.C., a broad coalition of labor activists, civil rights
organizations, womens groups, and leftist youth formed the Committee for
Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Participants raised funds, wrote letters,
held mass meetings, and coordinated a national media effort to bring widespread attention to her case and force a trial. Just three months after Taylors
horrid experience, the committee had created branches in sixteen states and
assembled a distinguished board that included the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois
and Mary Church Terrell. Despite the notoriety and energy behind the committees effort, Taylor did not receive justice. Ultimately, a grand jury failed
to indict the perpetrators.
McGuire sees much significance in this neglected history. She is taken
particularly by the involvement of Rosa Parks, and reasonably so. It was
Parks who first interviewed Taylor and joined several others in organizing
her defense. (Like most cases of its kind, the brutal assault of Taylor turned
into a case about her character and worth as a credible victim.) In an effort to
center both Parks and Taylor as she narrates the story, McGuire intersperses
full biographical information on Parks amid the extraordinarily compelling
details of the Taylor story. Too often the activism of Parks prior to the 1955
Montgomery movement is lost in public commemorations of the boycott and
her specific contributions. So it is understandable that McGuire would offer
a steady, passionate correction by trying to feature the Rosa Parks who participated in the Taylor campaign and whose home was the site of organized
meetings to support the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. This active Parks of the
1940s was the stern and imaginative NAACP secretary who organized voter
registration drives and rebuilt the local NAACP Youth Council. The issue is
less an interpretative one about Parks being so much more than the lady who
got tired of sitting at the back of the bus. Parks autobiography, the very small
but rich collection of Parks letters in the NAACP papers, multiple memoirs,
the best scholarly sources on the Montgomery boycott, and the short commercial biographies of Parks all reveal the sum total of her work and vision
to be greater than her December 1955 day of defiance.1 Instead of merging
seamlessly, the two stories stand out without conveying a clearer or more
involved association between the two women. One reason for the awkward
juxtaposition is that there is too little information shared about Parks direct
role in the Taylor cause, leaving the placement of details about Parks to feel

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a bit forced in service of a larger argument about black women and militant
antirape activism. McGuire shares that Parks wrote letters, signed petitions,
and sent postcards in an effort to secure justice for Recy Taylor (p. 20). Many
others did as well. (McGuire does include the full text of one Parks letter, which
appears to be a form letter addressed to the governor.) Parks offers very little
about the Taylor case in her autobiography, other than it was a memory that
stood out for her. She recalled that some people formed a Committee for
Equal Justice for Mrs. Taylor, and she noted specifically the involvement of
Caroline Bellin, a white woman who was executive secretary for the group.
Parks did not reflect on her own involvement, although McGuire credits Parks
with being one of the committees founders.
McGuire also interviewed Taylor and her family members, and the results
of her conversations are included in a marvelously rendered epilogue that
captures McGuires return visit to Abbeville at the moment of President Barack
Obamas inauguration. What more did Recy Taylor share with McGuire, if
anything, about her working relationship with Parks during the campaign
and the subsequent efforts to keep her safe from the hundreds of threats she
received after reporting the crime? She doesnt tell us. As it stands, there
is a bit of irony to Parks presence in McGuires book: Parks the tired lady
on the bus is replaced with another iconic image, one that needs fleshing
out. McGuire proclaims the new Parks in the context of Taylors dreadful
experience, but there is still much to learn. No doubt, Taylor and Parks were
linked by time, space, and their initial interpersonal contact (the importance
of which should not be diminished). In the final analysis, though, it seems
unnecessary to frame Taylors incredible experience against the backdrop of
revisionism on Rosa Parks. Possibly the idea of tying in Rosa Parks so visibly
was a marketing one suggested by McGuires publisher. Taylors story and the
well-researched history that McGuire has written about the numerous other
cases stand on their own.
Undoubtedly, the clearest example of antirape activism as civil rights activism is the Tallahassee case of Betty Jean Owens, a student at Florida A&M
University. The circumstances of her attack mirrored that of Recy Taylor. On
May 2, 1959, four white males gathered to go out and get a nigger girl. They
kidnapped Owens and raped her seven times. The men were arrested, and
the Tallahassee community, led by college students, mobilized to great effect.
The civil rights movement had already begun in earnest by 1956, the year of a
Tallahassee bus boycott that was inspired by the Montgomery protest. Drawn
toward the immediacy and drama of direct action, the students marched with
signs, sang hymns, and boycotted their classes in response to the rape. They
also made a huge show of support for the devastated Owens, who remained
hospitalized for depression and physical injuries as a result of the assault.
They showed up two-hundred strong at the trial, crowding the balcony of

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the segregated county courthouse. Owens arrived accompanied by medical


staff and her mother. Her difficult testimony stirred her supporters, and the
initial media interest only intensified. She received the justice denied Recy
Taylor and others: her rapists were convicted. But there were multiple layers
of victory, according to McGuire. As she reminds readers throughout the book,
testimony was the first act of resistance (there is power in the telling). But the
contents of Owens powerful testimony challenged white male power in other
ways. She made a public declaration of her own humanity and that of other
black women. Her calm, unflinching responses countered even the slightest
suggestion that her victimization had anything to do with her character, even
when the defense attorney posed humiliating questions about her virginity. The
jury found the men guilty with a recommendation for mercy, which spared
them execution by electric chair. McGuire argues that this conviction was an
enormous break with the past, and she is quite persuasive in discussing most
of the major factors that made this campaign against sexual violence more
successful than previous cases, including a mobilized community already
engaged in a wave of activism. Other factors included Floridas reputation as
a moderate state and the class background of the defendantsalthough the
latter seemed less determinative, since other defendants profiled in the book
were poor to lower-middle class in status as well.
The Owens chapter (It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped) is the marquee
chapter of the book. It is very well written, and McGuires admirable research
skills are on full display. There is a richness of source materialnewspapers,
trial transcripts, meeting minutes, interviews, and powerful photoswhich
McGuire incorporates very effectively. The chapter is anchored by the testimony of Betty Jean Owen; and McGuires observations about the trial and
its outcome are especially sharp and considered. Most significant in relation
to the early parts of her book, McGuires clear-eyed, convincing arguments
do not take her beyond what her evidence provides in this chapter. Gender,
race, and violence were prominent themes of the Tallahassee movement, and
all were interwoven into a local protest experience like no other during the
civil rights phase of the black freedom struggle.
The Owens case, however, was one of many, and most never resulted in
convictionsor even trials. In other states, McGuire finds equally disturbing
cases of sexual violence as explicit political persecution for civil rights activism.
The most famous example involved Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer,
who was brutally beaten, sexually molested, and involuntarily sterilized
over the course of her lifetime. To a certain extent, place definitely mattered.
Certain states were set apart for the extent of brutality directed at blacks.
Alabama was one of those states, and Mississippi was another. Imprisoned
civil rights activists came to know such persecution in painfully memorable
ways. While personal testimony is key to documenting just how common

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the experience was, McGuire, drawing on the recent work of John Dittmer,
cites a chilling report issued by the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a
group of physicians who provided medical assistance to Mississippi activists
during the voter registration campaigns of 1964.2 Sexual abuse was rampant.
And where there were patterns of sexual violence, black women responded
through organized protests. In most Mississippi cases, white men got away
with sexual violence against black women routinely. Only ten were convicted
of rape between 1940 and 1965. In 1965, a white man was convicted of rape
and sentenced to life in prison without parole, a curious case if only because
McGuire leaves it to her notes to explain why she chose not to count this case
in her calculations: it involved pedophilia, which she regards as a different
and unique sex crime (p. 271). The victim was a five-year-old girl who later
identified one of the two white men who raped her while she played on a
plantation. Given the historical significance of the conviction and the fact that
so much seemed to depend on the testimony of a small child, it is puzzling
that McGuire did not offer more about the case or her method.
Despite the civil rights movements landmark legislative achievements (the
1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), black women remained
vulnerable to sexualized racial violence. And they would continue to resist,
sometimes with deadly results. One of the most celebrated cases was that of
twentyyear-old Joan Little, a North Carolina inmate sexually assaulted by a
prison guard. In self-defense, she stabbed the sixty-twoyear-old white male
with an ice pick. Authorities found her assailant naked from the waist down
with a stream of semen across his leg. Little had fled the Beaufort County Jail
in Washington, North Carolina, after the stabbing and remained on the run for
two weeks. After she surrendered, the Free Joan Little campaign went into
overdrive. It was a multiracial, feminist-led effort that was international in its
reach. In the end, Little was acquitted, mostly as a result of her exceptionally
skilled defense team. For McGuire, the Free Joan Little campaign was about
both continuity and change. It was a euphoric victory for the defense of black
womanhood that resulted from organized effort, as in earlier years; but the
times were also different. McGuire argues that Little was not a sympathetic
victim, but that standard was no longer the sole determinant of whether a
woman received justice. When imperfect black women were raped, juries
began to believe them just the same, owing to the right set of circumstances
and a changed racial climate. Here, McGuire stumbles a bit in trying to locate
broader significance for the Little trial in a slight attitude shift about black
womanhood. Certainly the times had changed, but the decisive factor in the
trial definitely had to do with the masterful performance of her two attorneys
the brilliant Karen Galloway (the first African American woman graduate of
Duke Law School) and Jerry Paul, a quirky, straight-shooting white Southern
male of principle. The defense strategy rested on Littles self-defense claim,

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as well as on a focus on the broad history of black women and sexual abuse
throughout the South. Another factor that figured in Littles acquittal was
the sheer scope of media attention, which appeared greater than it had been
for any previous case. In searching for some historical perspective, McGuire
might have also considered Little in the context of other abused black women
who murdered their offenders. Two that attracted attention were the cases of
Ruby McCollum and Lena Baker. McCollum was one of the wealthiest African
Americans in northern Florida in 1952 when she murdered her white lover, a
physician and elected state official who was enraged that she would not abort
her pregnancy. The case was covered extensively in the black press because
of the role of celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston. Eight years before the
McCollum case captured headlines, there was the Georgia case of Lena Baker,
who holds the sad distinction of being the first and only woman electrocuted
in the state.3 Both of these earlier cases involved sexual abuse and resistance,
and treatment of them would have added another dimension to McGuires
abuse-and-resistance framework.
In examining the Little case, McGuire keeps her focus on interracial rape,
as she does throughout the book. But it is hard to ignore the experience of
intraracial rape, about which black women became increasingly more vocal
during the 1970s, individually and collectively. One activist recalled how the
Black Panther Party once had its own system (a mini-trial, in one instance)
for women who accused brothers of rape. Sexual violence within nationalist organizations was a problemone big enough for black women to leave
those groups and form their own feminist organizations.4
All things considered, McGuire has written a timely book. It is hard to
imagine other civil rights histories that will be talked about in the same way
that her work will be discussed over the next few years. She has given us a
lot to ponder, and this fact alone will distinguish her work.
Chana Kai Lee is associate professor of history at the University of Georgia.
She is author of For Freedoms Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1999 ).
1. Examples of such work include J. Mills Thornton III, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics
and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma (2002); Stewart Burns,
ed., Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1997); Rosa Parks with James Haskins,
Rosa Parks: My Story (1992); Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks: A Life (2000).
2. John Dittmer, The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle
for Social Justice in Health Care (2009).
3. William Bradford Huie, Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956); C. Arthur
Ellis, Jr., Ph.D., and Leslie E. Ellis, Ph.D., The Trial of Ruby McCollum: The True-Crime Story
that Shook the Foundations of the Segregationist South (2003); Lela Bond Phillips, The Lena Baker
Story (2001).
4. Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Women, Power, and Revolution, New Political Science 21 (1999):
235; Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 19681980 (2005).