On the occasion of the end of February

By Love Isn’t Enough Co-Editor Julia.

I’ve spent most of this year’s Black History Month reading Danielle McGuire’s outstanding new book, 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. Reading this book has made me aware of how even the most well-intentioned histories of civil rights—like the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, for example—leave so much out. I’ve been thinking about the history we are taught occludes as much as it exposes, how patriarchy and white supremacy manage to insert themselves, shifting the narratives to their advantage. It’s been making me thing about how we teach history to our children, not just during black history month, but all the time.

Take Rosa Parks, for example. If you are anything like me, you grew up with an image of Parks as “a sweet and reticent old woman, whose tired feet caused her to defy Jim Crow on Montgomery’s city buses.”* Well, not so much. Parks, McGuire writes, was “a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an antirape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott.”  And, McGuire points out, she was one of a number of civil rights activists, including E.D. Nixon, who “cut their political teeth defending black women … who were raped by white men in Alabama in the 1940s.”

In 1944, Parks interviewed Recy Taylor as part of an investigation by the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP into Taylor’s rape by a group of white men (see a recent article about Taylor in the Root.com). After taking Taylor’s testimony, Parks returned to Montgomery and organized the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Taylor’s case was widely publicized and by early 1945, there were branches of the Committee for Equal Justice in 16 states and Washington, DC.  It was the Montgomery branch of the Committee, renamed the Montgomery Improvement Association, that was to lead the famous Montgomery bus boycott ten years later.**

But that’s just the beginning.

Also obscured in the conventional historical accounts, McGuire argues, was the role of sexual harassment and violence directed against black women in sustaining the bus boycott. It was the decade-long struggle of black women against mistreatment by white police officers and bus drivers, she explains, that drove the boycott: “Without an appreciation for the particular predicaments of black women in the Jim Crow South, it is nearly impossible to understand why thousands of working-class and hundreds of middle-class black women chose to walk rather than ride the bus for 381 days.” In a 1956 interview, Parks noted that “women walked  . . . not merely in support of her but because she ‘was not the only person who had been mistreated and humiliated. . . Other women had gone through similarly shameful experiences,’ Parks said, ‘some even worse than mine.’”

Indeed, McGuire’s larger point is that sexual violence against black women and black women’s resistance to this violence shaped the civil rights movement:

“Civil rights campaigns in Little Rock, Arkansas; Macon, Georgia; Tallahassee, Florida; Washington, North Carolina; Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and many other ;places had roots in organized resistance to sexual violence and appeals for protection of black womanhood.”

But the role of black women and sexual violence in the civil rights movement has been largely ignored:

“And yet analyses of rape and sexualized violence play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, which present it as a struggle between black and white men—the heroic leadership of Martin Luther King confronting intransigent white supremacists like “Bull” Connor. The real story—that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long struggle against sexual violence—has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African-American lives during the modern civil rights movement. “

As I said, I’ve been thinking about the history we are taught occludes as much as it exposes, how patriarchy and white supremacy manage to insert themselves, shifting the narratives to their advantage.  Tell me, what did you learn as a child that you’ve subsequently unlearned? Do you see any hope in the teaching your children receive now?

*All quotes from McGuire’s book.

**It’s worth noting, too, that Parks’ courageous actions did not come without consequences, another part of the story that is often left out. In 1957, roughly a year after the Boycott, Parks lost her job, was blacklisted in Montgomery, and received so many death threats that she moved her family to Detroit.

*** Photos: Mrs. A.W. West & Jo Ann Robinson were key organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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