Civil Rights: Our History, Danielle McGuire
“Sex is the principle around which the whole structure of segregation…is organized.” Gunnar Myrdal, 1944
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 18-year-old son, West, stepped out of the country chapel and strolled toward home alongside the peanut plantations that bounded the Abbeville-Headland highway….While walking, a green Chevy drove passed Recy, Fannie and West three times – back and forth. On the last pass, the car rolled to a stop in front of them and seven white men, armed with knives and guns, got out of the car. After taunting and threats, the men kidnapped Recy, shoving her into the backseat of their green Chevy. That night, six men raped Recy – one after another – before getting her dressed, tying a handkerchief over her eyes and ordering her out of the car, miles from 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.
At the Dark End of the Street “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.”
HerExchange proudly spoke with Danielle about her journey to uncover history.
SG: What was your understanding of who Rosa Parks was before writing this book and who did you discover her to be?
DM: My impression was probably close to what most people believe, a meek and mild-mannered seamstress that one day decided, after working hard and having sore feet, she wasn’t going to take it anymore. I knew Rosa was active in the movement, but I had no idea the type of militant work she was involved with.
Through her work on other sexual violence cases, like Recy Taylor, I started to discover a woman that was really fierce. Rosa grew up in the midst of the Marcus Garvey movement, her parents were Garveyites and she supported Malcolm X. So, to understand that Rosa Parks, who came to Detroit and participated in the Black Power movement, you need to understand the earlier Rosa Parks. The real Rosa worked diligently on rape cases and sat, as a little girl, with her grandfather as he cradled a shotgun in the front room of their home to ward off the Klan.
SG: Who ‘created’ the story of Rosa Parks as a meek and mild-mannered woman? I would assume it was white historian painting a picture, but it very much rose out of the civil rights movement itself, correct?
DM: Yes, to some degree. The men of the movement needed to protect Rosa; she couldn’t be a radical in the 1950’s and be safe. In some ways, the creation of Rosa as the simple-seamstress, who is very quiet, is purposeful and about safety.
And also, when the Montgomery bus boycott hit, the media went to the predominant men of the time to get the story: Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy and to E.D. Nixon and the men were happy to be in the spotlight. And in turn, the women were happy to let them be in the spotlight. Juanita Abernathy (Ralph Abernathy’s wife) was recently asked why women haven’t gotten more historical play and she said “we were happy to let the men have the spotlight because they were denied it for so long – but we [women] did the work and they got all the credit. But don’t mistake credit for effort; women were the ones who did it.”
SG: At the Dark End of the Street shares the real Rosa Parks by weaving together stories of African American women that were victims of rape and sexual violence. Throughout history, African American women rose to reclaim their bodily integrity by coming forward, telling their stories and accusing their perpetrators – great acts of defiance. Why did history grab on to Rosa instead of telling a larger history of resistance?
DM: History has always been told that way. If you read the newspaper today, you are going to get a skewed vision of how protest and change happens. People look for leaders and catalysts and certainly Rosa’s behavior on the bus the day she wouldn’t get up was a catalyst, despite the fact that Jo Ann Robinson had been planning a bus boycott in Montgomery for years before that moment and despite a number of women had already begun boycotting the buses in response to devastating treatment of other women on the bus system. History needed that one moment by the right woman.
SG: Why was Rosa the right woman?
DM: It’s very much what W.E.B. Du Bois talked about in Double Consciousness; the black community knew of Rosa because of her activism and white people didn’t know about that, which made her less of a threatening presence. Rosa’s mask of ‘simple-seamstress’ allowed her to be radical in a society that was really conformist and not radical.
SG: Two words stuck with me after finishing the book, ‘thingification’ and ‘somebodyness’. Talk about those words and how crucial they were to the struggle for ‘personhood’ for black women, and as part of the larger movement.
DM: In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about this concept of ‘thingification’ in his book Where Do We Go From Here, it’s the idea that white supremacy and segregation turns people into things. It was very true during slavery, African Americans were commodities; things to be bought and sold – that is where the word comes from, thingification.
The fact that white men felt they could sexually use and abuse African American women – with impunity – is part of the process of ‘thingifying’ human beings; reducing them to items that you can use and discard. That process of ‘thingification’ created the broad idea that African American’s weren’t human, they weren’t somebody. So when Dr. King talks about ‘somebodyness’, he is working to reverse the damage of ‘thingification’ and say to African Americans that you are somebody, you are a person, you are powerful, you have this spirit and energy. White supremacy sought to steal that sense of ‘somebodyness’ and that sense of power and citizenship away, the process of regaining that is one of the goals of the civil rights movement and it was very successful in that purpose.
A great example of this is Endesha Ida Mae Holland, an African American girl in Greenwood, Mississippi who was brutally raped at a very young age by a white man and then went on to become a prostitute. Years later, she became involved in the civil rights movement and said it was the first time she felt like she was somebody. The first time people would look at her in the eye and talk to her like a human being, treat her with respect and dignity – it changed everything for her. She went from being a prostitute to being a movement activist to getting her Ph.D. and becoming a playwright, author and professor. That process of regaining a sense of self is crucial to the struggle. It can seem small, but in many ways it’s everything.
SG: Another woman you spotlight is Joan Little. In 1975, Joan had spent about two months in the Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina when her white jailer attempted to rape her. During his attempt, Joan turned his weapon back on him and killed him. She was put on a very public trial for his murder and ultimately acquitted. Was there a parallel in this landmark case with the women’s movement of the 1970s converging with the civil rights movement?
DM: The women’s movement was so important because there was a new, fresh audience that was ready to fight and demand women’s rights around issues of bodily integrity and rape. The women’s movement had energy that was lacking in the civil rights movement. Yes, there were civil rights struggles happening, but there was no on-going mass movement that there was in the 1950s with Dr. King and SCLC, SNCC, etc. Joan Little’s case benefited tremendously from the energy and networks created by the women’s movement.
But, it’s important to know, the civil rights movement made the women’s right movement possible in many ways and made the kind of activism that women were doing in the 1960s and 70s possible. The civil rights movement showed women activists, and the world, that non-violence was an effective tool for change. The movement made it possible for the nation to see black women as human beings, as people that could not be violated and had rights.
Every bit of it came together for Joan Little’s case.
SG: Where are we now as a country?
DM: The world, as we understood it in the 1930s and 40s is different; segregation – as least legally – has been dismantled but we still struggle with integration, equality in education and access to opportunity. We still struggle with an unequal justice system and access to good representation; we have the largest prison population of any industrialized nation. There are some places we’ve gone backwards and others where we’ve moved forward as a nation; we still have a long ways to go.
In terms of sexual violence, we have a long way to go. Women are more able and comfortable speaking out today, but silence and secrecy is still a big issue. And violence against women as a weapon of terror still exists all around the world – and in many ways we are blind to it. We either close our eyes, or the media doesn’t cover it as they should – but it’s shocking how it continues to be used as a weapon of war. So we have a lot of work that needs to be done.
SG: Your book comes full circle when you describe watching President Barack Obama’s inauguration with Recy Taylor, in her Abbeville, Alabama home. Tell me about that day.
DM: It was incredible, and watching Obama become President was surreal – it was overwhelming. I felt like I needed to focus and embrace the moment to try to remember as much of it as I could because I feel the next generation won’t remember how hard it was for people like Recy Taylor to come up, how hard it was for them to simply be and move through the world without being violated.
People think because Obama is president that we are living in a post-racial world, that slavery is hundreds of years ago and the past is the past – for me to be standing there with Recy Taylor, who was so brutally assaulted in the 1940s, and watching Obama helped me remember the past is not so far away. We cannot forget about what happened to women like Recy Taylor, we have to tell their stories. If we don’t, we have no concept of how someone like Barack Obama comes to be, why it’s important and why it matters. And importantly, why it’s not the end, it’s not the ‘promised land’ that Dr. King referred to in 1968 – we are still getting there. We are on our way, but there are many miles left to travel down this road.
The civil rights movement shows us we can do it; we just need to learn our history and practice what we’ve learned.
SG: Our real history?
DM: Yes, our real history; to all be more like the real Rosa Parks.
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Danielle McGuire is a writer and Assistant Professor in the History Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.