About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this winter.
In her breathtaking Golden Globes speech Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey told the audience that “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool you have.” But for far too long, marginalized women have spoken their truths and been ignored or silenced.
Oprah mentioned Recy Taylor, a woman whose story I researched for years and wrote about in my 2010 book. Taylor’s story — a black woman who fought for justice against a group of white men who kidnapped and raped her in the Jim Crow South — is harrowing, but not unique.
Taylor, who died last month, publicly identified her perpetrators and testified against them in the 1940s, long before the #MeToo movement was spawned. The men had threatened to kill her if she spoke about the attack, a credible threat in Jim Crow Alabama.
But Taylor had a support network led by Rosa Parks, a seasoned activist who had cut her political teeth working to defend the “Scottsboro Boys” from false allegations of rape in 1933. Parks carried Taylor’s story to Montgomery, where she and the city’s most militant activists organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.” They launched a national protest movement that the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice in a decade.”
Eleven years later, this homegrown group of activists would be known as the Montgomery Improvement Association, vaunting its first president, Martin Luther King Jr., to international prominence and sparking a movement — the 1955-56 Bus Boycott — that would change the world.
It’s no surprise that buses became the target of black activists’ protests since they also were sites of sexual and racial violence for black women, who made up the majority of the riders. Many were domestic workers who were assaulted on the buses and then became vulnerable to attack while working in white people’s homes. Buses became the target of black activists’ protests because they were the most visible vehicle of the system that abused African Americans daily.
Organized, led and sustained by these very women, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was rooted in black women’s demands for bodily integrity.
Though her own perpetrators were never convicted, Taylor’s story is part of a much longer history — both terrifying and inspiring — of black women who have endured public humiliation and risked their lives to lead the charge against unchecked sexual violence, experiences often buried in the account of America’s feminist history.
Their stories of subversion date from the 1830s, when Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman in North Carolina, lived in a crawl space for years to escape her owner’s sexual abuse. She decried her master’s lechery in her 1861 autobiography that was used to generate support for the abolition of slavery.
The fight continued in the 1850s, when a 19-year-old slave named Celia killed the man who owned her and had subjected her to years of sexual assault, forcing her to bear two of his children. Though Celia told a jury she acted in self-defense against a man who had come to her cabin to rape her again, insisting she deserved the same protection the law afforded white women, she was convicted of murder and hanged.
Black women waged the battle against sexual assault through writing, as well. Ida B. Wells, a radical journalist and anti-lynching activist, condemned rape as a weapon of terror used by whites in the 1890s to dominate the bodies and minds of newly freed African Americans.
There were many stories like Taylor’s, including Betty Jean Owens, who testified about being kidnapped and raped by four white men in Tallahassee, in 1959. An all-white jury gave her assailants a life sentence — a historic first that led to other convictions.
Rosa Lee Coates, a black teenager from Hattiesburg, Miss., told an all-white jury that Norman Cannon kidnapped and raped her in 1965. The jury sentenced Cannon to life in prison — the first time a white man served an entire life sentence for raping a black woman in Mississippi. He appealed in 2005 and was denied.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a fierce activist from Sunflower County in Mississippi, spoke out about a forced hysterectomy she received and told a congressional committee in 1964 about being subjected to a sexualized beating in a Winona, Miss., jailhouse.
When a white jailer tried to rape Joan Little, a 20-year-old inmate in North Carolina, in 1974, she killed him with an ice pick and escaped. A jury agreed that even black women, vilified for so long and denied the right to their own bodies, had the right to defend themselves with violence, if necessary. Like her defense of Taylor in 1944, Rosa Parks helped lead the Detroit chapter of the “Free Joan Little” campaign.
And in 1991, Anita Hill spoke for millions of working women when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about enduring years of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas at the EEOC and the Department of Education. Thomas went on to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.
From the earliest days of America to today, African American women have been at the forefront of movements against sexual violence and rape. From Celia to Anita — and now Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo — they have been torchbearers for justice and human dignity by speaking out and standing up. We should not only say their names, but remember the work they’ve put in, so that, as Oprah Winfrey put it at the 2018 Golden Globes awards, no one should ever have to say “me, too,” again.
More from About US: