How civil rights movement overshadowed abuse of women

OPINION - The civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women's long struggle against sexual violence...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In 2008, the Department of Justice received over $1 million to pursue racially-motivated crimes committed during the Civil Rights era. However, the bill, known as the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, only allowed the Justice Department to investigate “crimes that resulted in a death.” By limiting the scope of the bill, the Justice Department and other organizations focus almost exclusively on racial crimes committed against African-American men—a focus, the New York Times recently noted, that had not yielded significant prosecutions. Unfortunately, the crimes committed against black women during Jim Crow often remain unsolved and worse, unknown. Perhaps Congress should revise the bill and allow the Justice Department to investigate the flipside of lynching and racialized murder: the rape of black women.

On September 3, 1944, a carload of white men abducted Recy Taylor, a slender, copper-colored twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper as she walked home from church in Abbeville, Alabama. The six men drove her to a lonely wooded area outside of town and gang-raped her at gunpoint. When they finished, someone blindfolded her 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.

That night she told her husband, her father, and the local sheriff what happened. 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. Her name was Rosa Parks.

Parks met with Taylor shortly after the attack, and with black activists in Montgomery, Birmingham, and New York, organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.” Together, they launched what the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign to be seen in a decade.”

Despite garnering national and international attention for nearly a year, Taylor’s assailants were never punished for what they did. Two all-white, all-male juries refused to indict the men despite the fact that they admitted to kidnapping and having sex with Taylor. Their admissions are part of a trove of evidence sitting in a box in the Alabama Department of Archives and History, yet there has been no movement to reopen Taylor’s case or any old racially-motivated rape cases.

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, but continued, often unpunished, through the better part of the twentieth century. 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 gun-point 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 taxi cabs and trains, and other public spaces.African-American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults. Their testimonies spilled out in letters to the Justice Department and appeared on the front pages of the nation’s leading black newspapers. 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 galvanized local, national and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. Yet analyses of rape and sexualized violence play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, presenting it as a struggle between black and white men—the heroic leadership of Martin Luther King confronting intransigent white supremacists like “Bull” Connor”.

However, the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long struggle against sexual violence. 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. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement.

In addition to solving decades-old racially motivated murders, the Justice Department and other organizations committed to prosecuting Civil Rights-era crimes should consider reopening Recy Taylor’s and other black women’s cases that have languished all these years. After all, there is no statute of limitation for rape in many states and these brave women, a number of whom are still alive, deserve equal justice.

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 (Knopf, September 2010) by Danielle L. McGuire is a groundbreaking new work of history that reinterprets the Civil Rights Movement in terms of the sexualized violence and rape that marked race relations in America for centuries.