Black women's cries that roused the world

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By Sheri Parks
Sunday, November 21, 2010


Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

By Danielle L. McGuire

Knopf. 324 pp. $27.95

In the segregated American South, a white man could rape a black woman with little fear of legal or social recourse, and black women lived in a persistent state of apprehension. Rape was used as a weapon of terror in the subjugation of black women, their families and whole communities. In "At the Dark End of the Street," Danielle L. McGuire writes that white men raped black women and girls "with alarming regularity and stunning uniformity," with some victims as young as 7. While some readers will rightly be stunned by that assertion, many African American women will recognize a commonly acknowledged danger.

As young black girls in 1960s and '70s North Carolina, my sister and I were made to speak to white men who came to our house through a locked screen door and to never, ever, let them know if we were alone. Some of our friends were not allowed to answer the door at all. Women and girls who worked as domestics were most vulnerable, and McGuire includes one woman's estimate that three-quarters of the girls who worked as domestics in her area had been raped by white men.

Affluence was no protection when women were kidnapped off the street and from their own homes. Cases included civil rights workers and a college coed still in her prom dress. The crimes took on an awful sameness: abduction at gun- or knifepoint. Gang rapes and severe beatings were common. Afterward, the rapists often dumped their victims in remote areas and threatened their lives if they told.

But "At the Dark End of the Street" is a story of courage. The women did tell, again and again. Many went to police before they went to the hospital and were supported by families and friends who corroborated their stories, at great risk. White control of the justice system meant that relatively few men were ever arrested and many fewer were ever convicted. McGuire reports that between 1940 and 1965, only 10 Mississippi white men were convicted of raping black women and girls. Although rape was a capital offense in many Southern states, no white man was ever executed for raping a black woman.

Yet black women's resistance grew into a social movement. Years before the Montgomery bus boycott, a coalition of poor and middle-class black women raised money; formed organizations; wrote, mimeographed and distributed fliers; attended trials; and boycotted the businesses of rapists. These actions created the strategies and alliances that the same women would use later to extend their rights. In fact, the civil rights movement was a continuation of the anti-rape movement; the early college sit-ins, largely by women, came in response to sexual violence, and Rosa Parks was a central figure well before she refused to give up her seat on the bus.

Black women rallied outside rape trials and faced retaliation by policemen. There are moments in this book that will make readers cheer. During one Montgomery trial, scores of black domestics arrived to support the victim. When a skittish policeman reached for his gun, one woman told him, "If you hit one of us, you'll not leave here alive." He backed down.

The Achilles heel of the South has always been its concern for public image. The rapes were reported in the black press, and the cases that went to trial became matters of public record. In the 1950s, the national and international press began to pick up the stories of the rapes, trials and rallies, turning them into an international Cold War embarrassment. The Southern justice system responded with more indictments and even a few convictions, mostly of poor, uneducated men. They were the first convictions of white rapists since Reconstruction.

McGuire, an assistant professor of history at Wayne State University, combines her own research and interviews with a rich store of black women's academic scholarship. She stays close to her sources, sometimes at the expense of larger trends. For example, she describes one family who sent their daughter to college to keep her out of white kitchens and away from the increased danger of rape. But the author does not note that the practice was so widespread as to be a central reason that historically, many more black women graduated from college than did black men. Still, "At the Dark End of the Street" is an important step to finally facing the terrible legacies of race and gender in this country.

Sheri Parks is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of "Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture."

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