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

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Vintage Books, 2011 - History - 392 pages
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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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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User Review  - larryerick - LibraryThing

Imagine being a woman. A woman with 23 children. Now imagine that 20 of those children are the result of being raped. Imagine that your daughter is so fearful of being attacked, too, that she ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - VikkiLaw - LibraryThing

Written in a conversational tone accessible to non-academics, I think that everyone who is concerned about either racial justice/anti-racism or anti-rape work should read this. (Hell, everyone should ... Read full review


CHAPTER Theyd Kill Me If I Told
CHAPTER Negroes Every Day Are Being Molested
CHAPTER Walking in Pride and Dignity
CHAPTER Theres Open Season on Negroes Now
CHAPTER It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped
CHAPTER A Black Womans Body Was Never
CHAPTER Sex and Civil Rights
CHAPTER Power to the Ice Pick
EPILOGUE We All Lived in Fear for Years

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About the author (2011)


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 eighteen year- old son, West, stepped out of the country chapel and strolled toward home alongside the peanut plantations that bounded the Abbeville-Headland highway. Taylor, a slender, copper-colored, and beautiful twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, noticed a rattletrap green Chevrolet pass them at least three times, young white men gawking from its windows.

"You reckon what they are up to?" Taylor asked.

Taylor and Daniel, a stout sixty- one- year- old woman, watched the car creep by one last time and roll to a stop a few feet ahead of them. Seven men, armed with knives and guns, got out of the car and walked toward the women. Herbert Lovett, the oldest of the crew at twenty- four and a private in the U.S. Army, shouted, "Halt!"

When they ignored the order, Lovett leveled his shotgun. West tugged at his mother''s sleeve, begging her to stop. "They might shoot you," he whispered.

As the circle of men closed in, Lovett waved his gun at Taylor.

"We''re looking for this girl, right there. She''s the one that cut that white boy in Clopton this evening," Lovett said, adding that the local sheriff, George H. Gamble, had dispatched the group to find the alleged assailant.

"You''re wrong," Fannie insisted. "She''s been to my house all day."

The men crowded closer, nodding their heads in agreement. "Ain''t this her?" Lovett asked.

"Yep, this the one," Joe Culpepper said. "I know her by the clothes she got on."

"That''s her," Luther Lee agreed. "Get her!"

Lovett lurched toward Taylor and grabbed her arm. Then he turned to West and asked if Taylor was his wife.

"No," West replied, "she''s Willie Guy Taylor''s wife." Undeterred, Lovett extended his hand to the teenager, ordered him to shake it, and promised not to hurt Taylor.

"We''re going to take her up here and see if Mr. Gamble knows her," Lovett claimed. "If she''s not the one, we''ll bring her right back."
As Lovett spoke, Taylor managed to wrest her arm from his grasp and bolted toward a stand of trees behind a cabin.1

"Come back! Come back!" Fannie yelled. "They going to shoot you. Come back!"

"Stop!" Lovett shouted. He cocked the gun at the back of her head. "I''ll kill you if you run."

Lovett walked Taylor to the car and shoved her into the backseat. Three men piled in behind her, while four others squeezed into the front. The headlights switched off and the car crept away. After a few miles, the green sedan turned off the main highway, rattled down a red-clay tractor path into the woods, and stopped in a grove of pecan trees. "Y''all aren''t carrying me to Mr. Gamble," Taylor shouted. The men in the backseat clasped her wrists and ordered her to be quiet. Lovett grabbed his gun and waved Taylor and his companions out of the car.

"Get them rags off," he barked, pointing the shotgun at her, "or I''ll kill you and leave you down here in the woods."

Sobbing, Taylor pulled off her clothes.

"Please," she cried, "let me go home to my husband and my baby."

Lovett spread an old hunting coat on the ground, told his friends to strip down to their socks and undershirts, and ordered Taylor to lie down.

Lovett passed his rifle to a friend and took off his pants. Hovering over the young mother, he snarled, "Act just like you do with your husband or I''ll cut your damn throat."

. . .

Lovett was the first of six men to rape Taylor that night. When they finished, someone helped her get dressed, tied a handkerchief over her eyes, and shoved her back into the car. Back on the highway, the men stopped and ordered Taylor out of the car. "Don''t move until we get away from here," one of them yelled. Taylor heard the car disappear into the night. She pulled off the blindfold, got her bearings, and began the long walk 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.

In later years, historians would paint Parks as a sweet and reticent old woman, whose tired feet caused her to defy Jim Crow on Montgomery''s city buses. Her solitary and spontaneous act, the story goes, sparked the 1955 bus boycott and gave birth to the civil rights movement. But Rosa Parks was a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an antirape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott. After meeting with Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice. With support from local people, she helped organize what the Chicago Defender called the "strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade." Eleven years later this group of homegrown leaders would become better known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement, was in many ways the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect black women, like Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.

The kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor was not unusual in the segregated South. The sexual exploitation of black women by white men had its roots in slavery and continued throughout the better part of the twentieth century.

When African Americans tested their freedom during Reconstruction, former slaveholders and their sympathizers used rape as a "weapon of terror" to dominate the bodies and minds of African-American men and women. Interracial rape was not only used to uphold white patriarchal power but was also deployed as a justification for lynching black men who challenged the Southern status quo. In addition to the immediate physical danger African Americans faced, sexual and racial violence functioned as a tool of coercion, control, and harassment. Ida B. Wells, the guntoting editor of the Memphis Free Press who led a crusade against lynching in the 1890s, argued that white men accused black men of rape as part of a larger "system of intimidation" designed to keep blacks "subservient and submissive." Worse, Wells argued at the turn of the century, white men used the protection of white womanhood to "justify their own barbarism."

The rape of black women by white men continued, often unpunished, throughout the Jim Crow era. As Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow arose, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity. White men lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work, or church; raped them as a form of retribution or to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy; sexually humiliated and assaulted them on streetcars and buses, in taxicabs and trains, and in other public spaces. As the acclaimed freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer put it, "A black woman''s body was never hers alone."

Black women did not keep their stories secret. African- American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults. They launched the first public attacks on sexual violence as a "systemic abuse of women" in response to slavery and the wave of lynchings in the post-Emancipation South. Slave narratives offer stark testimony about the brutal sexual exploitation bondswomen faced. For example, Harriet Jacobs detailed her master''s lechery in her autobiography to "arouse the women of the North" and "convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is." When African- American clubwomen began to organize antilynching campaigns during the late nineteenth century, they testified about decades of sexual abuse. On October 5, 1892, hundreds of black women converged on Lyric Hall in New York City to hear Ida B. Wells''s thunderous voice. While black men were being accused of ravishing white women, she argued, "The rape of helpless Negro girls, which began in slavery days, still continues without reproof from church, state or press." At the 1893 World''s Fair in Chicago, Fannie Barrier Williams told an audience of black and white clubwomen about the "shameful fact that I am constantly in receipt of letters from the still unprotected women of the South. . . ." Anna Julia Cooper, a Washington, D.C., educator, author, and respected clubwoman, echoed Williams''s testimony. Black women, she told the crowd, were engaged in a "painful, patient, and silent toil . . . to gain title to the bodies of their daughters."

Throughout the twentieth century, black women persisted in telling their stories, frequently cited in local and national NAACP reports. Their testimonies spilled out in letters to the Justice Department and appeared on the front pages of the nation''s leading black newspapers. Black women regularly denounced their sexual misuse. By deploying their voices as weapons in the wars against white supremacy, whether in the church, the courtroom, or in congressional hearings, African- American women loudly resisted what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the "thingification" of their humanity. Decades before radical feminists in the women''s movement urged rape survivors to "speak out," African-American women''s public protests galvanize

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