At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power
Danielle L. McGuire
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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.
King, Jr., to Alabama Clergy, November 30, 1956, in Burns, Daybreak, 305. 169. Branch, Parting the Waters, 194. 170. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston, 1968), 123. CHAPTER 4: “THERE’S OPEN SEASON ON NEGROES NOW” 1. Melba Patillo Beals, Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High (New York, 1994), 22–25. 2. Ibid., 25–26. 3. Ibid., 26. At a distance of decades and in the absence of police reports and
Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York, 1981). 42. “Justice in North Carolina: Once More Old South,” NYT, March 9, 1975, B5E. 43. Reston, Innocence, 77. 44. Ibid., 13. 45. David Cecelski, “Karen Bethea-Shields: In Joan Little’s Cell,” RNO, January 12, 2003. 46. Reston, “The Innocence of Joan Little,” Southern Exposure 6, no. 1 (1978): 37. 47. “Joanne Little: No Escape Yet,” Off Our Backs, January 1975, folder 3, box 4, HH. 48. Angela Davis,
of North Carolina Press, 1999. Odum, Howard W. Race and Rumors of Race: The American South in the Early Forties. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Olson, Lynne. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York: Scribner, 2001. O’Reilly, Kenneth. Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America. New York: Free Press, 1989. ———. Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton. New York: Free
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
admitted it,” Slappey said. “They didn’t say why they did it, and that’s all I’m going to say about this dirty business.” William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire (the sixteen-year-old cousin of police chief Frank Stoutamire), Patrick Scarborough, and David Beagles, whom the Pittsburgh Courier called the “element which sports duck-bill haircuts,” confessed in writing to abducting Owens at gunpoint and having “sexual relations” with her. When Sheriff Hamlin asked the men to look over their