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Author provides a radical reframing of the origins of the Civil Rights Movement

March 15, 2011

Yesterday, Wayne State University Professor Danielle L. McGuire spoke to an audience at the downtown campus of GVSU. The topic of her talk was based on her recently released book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape & Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

She began her presentation the same way the book begins by telling the story of Recy Taylor, a 24 year-old Black woman who while walking home was stopped by a carload of White men. The men forced her into their car and then raped her. The White men told her that if she said anything they would kill her. She told everyone she knew.

The NAACP got wind of the incident and sent their best investigator, Rosa Parks, to Alabama to interview Recy. What Rosa Parks discovered and what Professor McGuire found out was that a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott the Black community was already organized and resisting White Supremacy. The difference was Black people were not fighting for an end to racial segregation they were fighting against the sexual violence of White men against Black women.

McGuire said, “The modern Civil Rights movement was born out of the overwhelming incidents of sexual assaults by White men in the South.” It was the courage of Black women that gave birth to the tactics and strategies that challenged White Male Supremacy that would later be used for voting rights and other campaigns, according to McGuire.

Professor McGuire then went on to talk about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She said that the popular version of the story is that Rosa Parks started the boycott because she refused to move to the back of the bus. However, McGuire said that another Black woman, Gertrude Perkins, was really the person who gave birth to the campaign. Perkins was a 25-year old black women who was abducted by White police officers, who then raped her. After the rape she told a local Black minister, who sent the story to a syndicated columnist and radio talk show host who reported on the assault the next morning. The local police would not investigate, even though they had a history of sexist and racist history.

Black people in Montgomery organized around this assault. One action was to hang a banner that read, “The Rapist was White.” It happened to be that the church where the banner was hung was the same church that Dr. King would later be pastor of. A local committee was also formed in response to the rape and this group was so effective in their organizing that they got a Grand Jury hearing and the local Black ministers together for the very first time.

Not long afterwards there was another incident of a rape of a Black woman by a local grocer. Again, the police would not investigate, so a boycott campaign against the store was begun, yet another tactic that was used by the Civil Rights movement.

In addition, there were organized campaigns against the bus system, even boycotts, because of the ongoing sexual harassment on the buses in Montgomery. The bulk of the riders were Black women who worked as maids in White homes and could only use bus transportation to get to work.

So when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, it was no surprise that thousands participate, especially women who had been fighting racism and sexism on the buses for over a decade. “These women during the boycott walked to work and walked to protest the sexism and racism that women had experienced,” said McGuire.

Professor McGuire also told the story of Daisy Bates, in Little Rock, Arkansas who is known for her work in school desegregation. However, Bates got involved in Civil Rights work because her mother had been raped by White men. In fact, the newspaper she edited (Arkansas State Press), would often denounce the sexism and sexual assaults by White men.

McGuire went on to say that so many of these southern Civil Rights struggles were born of women’s experience with sexual assault. McGuire also said it is important to put this history into proper context, by going back to slavery, where White slave owners often sexually assaulted Black women in slavery. This is where sexual assault by White men against Black women became normalized.

During Reconstruction White Supremacists used Sexualized violence as a tool against freed slaves. It was during this time that the White Supremacists used the myth of Black male sexual predators as a way to demonize Black men and maintain power. McGuire said there is an old saying that grew out of the Jim Crow era which said, “The closer a Black man got to the Voting box, the more he looked like a rapist.”

Professor McGuire also mentions the 1967 Supreme Court decision, which overturns the ban on inter-racial marriage. This decision was a watershed moment that not only led to greater equality and freedom in relationships but it also was a slap in the face to White Supremacists.

McGuire shared several other stories and cases that are in her book, but towards the end of the talk she emphasized the point that if we are going to fully understand the sexual and gender aspects of the Civil Rights movement, we have to come to terms with the sexual and gendered violence that activists had to endure. It was this very sexualized and gendered violence, which gave birth to the modern Civil Rights movement that McGuire said should radically alter how we approach that history.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sandra permalink
    May 1, 2012 8:10 pm

    Good book and good article. It tells how some of these strong black women like Recy Taylor, Betty Jean Owens, Joann Little and My mother Gertrude Perkins had the guts, determination and strength to challenge these awful white men and their so called laws and predjudice to demand ,and get justice for the protection of their rights. I believe that all rape victims and others should look to these women as their (S)Heroes and as an inspiration to get justice for themselves from any RAPISTS.

  2. Ericka Allen permalink
    December 31, 2017 7:46 am

    So many african american “shero’s ”
    were left out of our history. This was a very enlightening article.

    Ericka Allen


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