Before Montgomery

At the Dark End of the Street:

A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

RECY TAYLOR was 24 years old when she was kidnapped, taken out into the woods by seven local white men and raped. The African American wife and mother was walking home from church with two other parishioners around midnight on September 3, 1944, when the carload of men wielding knives and guns forced her into the car, took her to a secluded location to rape her, and then drove her back to the road to dump her.

While Recy Taylor’s struggle to find justice in the Jim Crow South may not be as well known today, the woman who would travel to Abbeville, Alabama, to help campaign for her is much more familiar—Rosa Parks.

The men were never punished for their crime, but Parks and others were able to bring the case international attention. Taylor’s case was one of several that Parks and other activists worked on—shining a light on the racist rape and sexual violence against Black women in the South—and local authorities’ total disregard for, or complicity in, these crimes.

In her book, At the Dark End of the Street, historian Danielle McGuire chronicles these less-studied struggles that took place in the decade before the Montgomery bus boycott that served as a training ground for further civil rights organizing.

Taylor’s case was anything but unusual. Rape, sexual violence and assault against Black women were part and parcel of a system of racist segregation in the South, creating a climate of fear among Blacks.

Marginalized men, often members of the Ku Klux Klan, typically carried out the acts of violence, but it was the local officials charged with carrying out justice—such upstanding members of society as the police, judges, and newspaper editors—who could be counted upon to help these crimes go unpunished.

These acts of terrorism aimed at the South’s Black citizens stood alongside the terror of lynching, and for Black men, so too did the threat that at any time, they could be accused of molesting a white woman.

When Willie McGee of Laurel, Mississippi, tried to break off an affair with his white female employer, he soon found himself under suspicion. When his employer’s husband found out, he was accused of rape. McGee was put to death in public, with a portable electric chair.

The leftist Civil Rights Congress led a campaign in defense of McGee. As a white Kentucky activist Anne Braden, who protested the execution, explained, we are demanding that “no more innocent men…die in the name of protecting southern white womanhood. We have been made a party to this injustice too long.”

Even though rape cases aren’t typically featured in Civil Rights history, many Black women spoke out against their attackers and sought justice. What budding activists like Rosa Parks and others found was that if they spoke out about the attacks, organized and made the cases public—they could expose the mockery of justice in the Jim Crow South.

In some cases, they found that they could win.

Betty Jean Owens was parked with friends after a formal dance in 1959 at Florida A&M when four white men forced her at gunpoint to get in their car. In court later that year, she recounted the details of her rape, and doctors who had examined her explained that her injuries had required a five-day hospital stay.

Despite this, her attackers’ lawyer asked if she had enjoyed it and tried to paint Owens as a “jezebel” who could not possibly have been raped.

But with hundreds of supporters packing the segregated courtroom every day, national attention was focused on the trial. The jury found the four men guilty “with a recommendation for mercy,” which saved them from the death penalty, a fate that Black men found guilty of raping a white woman would certainly have met.

The judge gave the men life in prison. While many were understandably disappointed by the outcome, the verdict marked an important first. As McGuire points out, “Despite the segregationists’ efforts to maintain the status quo, the conviction signaled an enormous break with the past.”

Several future civil rights leaders began their activism around similar cases. In the decade before Brown v. Board of Education, Daisy Bates—who would later help recruit students to become part of the Little Rock Nine and force Arkansas schools to desegregate—was publishing articles on the rape of Black women. The Arkansas State Press, the newspaper she and her husband ran, “became a thorn in the sides of Little Rock’s white and black leaders, whom she pilloried regularly for failing to remedy the injustices of Jim Crow, especially police brutality and the abuse of black women,” writes McGuire.

Bates’ mother was raped and murdered by three white men when she was seven years old. She became the person that women came to with their stories of rape and sexual assault, and she would report their stories on the front page of the newspaper.

Sexual harassment was a regular feature of the segregated bus lines—the place that would be the focus of activism in the 1950s. In Montgomery, Alabama, most of the complaints of harassment on the city buses came from working-class Black women, over half of whom worked as domestics.

When the boycott of the city buses began, working-class Black women were at the heart of it. Georgia Gilmore, a nurse, midwife and mother of six, enlisted her friends to form the “Club from Nowhere.” Club members cooked meals and made sandwiches that they sold to raise funds for the boycott, often raising $200 in a single week.

But these women who risked their own personal safety and formed the backbone of the movement are little remembered today. As Gilmore said, “We made the world take notice of black folks in Montgomery” but now “we’re all in the Club from Nowhere.”

During the boycotts, these women gained the confidence to defy the racists and the police, and were able to transform the mood in the South. When Montgomery’s mayor threatened to arrest boycotters, Parks and hundreds of others marched to the courthouse and offered to turn themselves in. The crowd gathered, defiant, laughing at the police.

When a policeman tried to get control of the crowd, the women surged forward. “All right, you women get back,” the officer shouted as he reached for his billy club. Then “these great big old women with their dresses rolled up,” [activist B.J.] Simms recalled, “told [the officer]. ‘Us ain’t going nowhere. You done arrested us preachers and we ain’t moving,’” When the officer reached for his gun, the fearless women dared him to use them. “I don’t care what you got,” one woman said. “If you hit one of us, you’ll not leave here alive.”

At the Dark End of the Street offers a glimpse into the not-often-talked-about struggles that helped lay the basis for the massive civil rights struggles to come—in particular the women who spoke out against racist rape and sexual violence because speaking out was the only way they could have a hope at justice.

As McGuire writes, “these brutal attacks almost always began at the dark end of the street. But African Americans would never let them stay there.”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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