Walking in black women's footsteps: Two important new histories of the Civil Rights movement | Reading | Indy Week

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Walking in black women's footsteps: Two important new histories of the Civil Rights movement

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The Chicago Tribune called it "the trial of the decade," and Angela Davis wrote a long piece about it for Ms. magazine. It happened right here in Raleigh, in 1975. Doesn't ring a bell? How about this rallying cry: "Free Joan Little!"

In 1974, Joan Little (her first name is pronounced "Jo-Anne"), then 20 years old, was serving a seven-to-10-year sentence in a Wilmington, N.C., jail for felonious breaking, entering and larceny. The white warden, 62-year-old Clarence Alligood, went into Little's cell with an ice pick and forced Little into sex. After Alligood's climax, Little killed him with the ice pick and fled.Considered armed and dangerous—police were ordered to shoot her on sight—Little eluded arrest for more than a week before surrendering to the Chapel Hill State Bureau of Investigation. She was charged with first-degree murder.

Little's case was a tough one. For one thing, African-American women had been victimized for centuries by white sexual violence in the South, but fear of reprisal kept most crimes from being reported, let alone prosecuted. When cases did go to court, white juries almost always acquitted the assailants. Black-on-white sexual violence, on the other hand, was punished—formally or informally, but almost always brutally. There was scant legal precedent for Little.

Another complicating factor was that when civil rights activists pursued legal action, they would carefully choose plaintiffs with spotless pasts so as to keep character out of the arguments. But even Joan Little's own lawyer, a white, long-haired contrarian and former East Carolina University football player named Jerry Paul, admitted, "She's not an honest person ... [S]he's not a kind person. She's a violent person."

So important was Little's case that it roused to action, like a civil rights Cincinnatus, none other than the iconic Rosa Parks, who had lived largely out of the public eye for almost 20 years. Parks, then 62, helped found a branch of the Joan Little Legal Defense Fund in Detroit, where Parks had relocated in 1957. A press release from the Detroit office hoped "that the question, 'should a woman defend herself against a rapist?' will be decided in the affirmative."

Danielle L. McGuire's At the Dark End of the Street ends with an account of Little's trial, perhaps the most public tangling of sex and gender with race in the civil rights movement. McGuire's book corrects "most histories ... which present it as a struggle between black and white men. 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." McGuire claims that "sexual assault and interracial rape became the battleground ... where the modern civil rights movement began," further arguing that "when radical feminists finally made rape and sexual assault political issues, they walked in the footsteps of generations of black women."

One of those women was Recy Taylor (a dedicatee of the book), whose abduction and gang rape by six white men in 1944 in Abbeville, Ala., opens At the Dark End of the Street. When Taylor went to the police, the Montgomery branch of the NAACP sent "its best investigator," writes McGuire, to Abbeville: the 31-year-old Rosa Parks.

If At the Dark End of the Street accomplished nothing else, it would be valuable for reminding us of Parks' radicalism. She was not a frail old lady who wouldn't get up from her bus seat "because she was tired and her feet ached"—that was the verbatim fabrication of a comic strip published in 1957 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international civil liberties advocacy group. In fact, Parks was only 42 in 1955 and, according to McGuire, "a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an anti-rape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott" that launched Martin Luther King's career. Though "in popular memory, Rosa Parks leaves the speechifying to Dixie demagogues and Dr. King, at the 1948 NAACP convention in Mobile, Parks gave an impassioned speech warning her colleagues to be wary of any federal civil rights promises ... 'No one should feel proud,' [Parks] said, 'when Negroes every day are being molested and maltreated.'" (The word "molested" takes on new, troubling meaning in this context.) McGuire concludes, "Parks's fiery speech got her elected secretary of the Statewide Conference of the Alabama NAACP." Later, "her radicalism [was] all but erased when she became the Madonna of Montgomery."

Recy Taylor's attackers were never even indicted, and At the Dark End of the Street recounts many other such grim stories that ended in acquittals. (Oddly, McGuire points out, one of the few cases to end in conviction—a life sentence for Norman Cannon for the 1965 rape in Hattiesburg, Miss., of 15-year-old Rosa Lee Coates—went largely unnoticed at the time.) The book is tough to read, deliberately filled with gruesome detail. It shows impressive research as it trudges case by case, letting their sheer number mount as evidence. It's a place no one has wanted to go, and although McGuire might have permitted herself some room for analysis—this is just straight history—and her generally ordinary prose is given to occasional rhetorical bursts, At the Dark End of the Street is a welcome corrective.

Hands on the Freedom Plow, a women's oral history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also challenges the reader, but only with sheer volume. This 616-page compendium of first-person accounts, exclusively edited and written by the women of SNCC, will appeal mostly to researchers and devotees of the movement.

SNCC—"the more radical and confrontational arm of the civil rights movement," according to the book's introduction—was founded in 1960 at Raleigh's Shaw University (where SNCC's 50th-anniversary conference took place this past April), largely as the result of a conference organized there by a woman, Ella Baker. It was a powerful force for most of the 1960s but fell apart after leaders like Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) and H. Rap Brown redirected its concerns and embraced a more militant stance; Brown removed "nonviolent" from the ideology when he renamed SNCC "Student National Coordinating Committee." Whites were disinvited, diminishing SNCC's labor force.

Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference had the lofty rhetoric of its leader, but SNCC stayed closer to ground level. Hands on the Freedom Plow co-editor Faith S. Holsaert, who lives in Durham and contributes a chapter to the book, recalls thinking during the Southwest Georgia movement in 1963: "This is what our work is: moment added to moment, sandwiches and scary car rides, citizenship lesson added to citizenship lesson, staff reports week after week." It was tiring, often grinding work, and women did an enormous amount of it in a climate of danger and poverty.

But it was also done in a spirit of great idealism, one that has since been largely lost from the American student populace. (Which is perhaps best known these days, thanks to The Social Network, for inventing Facebook. If you want to know why digital social media and the civil rights movement will always be worlds apart, have a look at Malcolm Gladwell's potent recent essay in The New Yorker, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.") That idealism—deep and sometimes frightening—is made vivid by another contributor, Margaret Herring, who happens to live in Wilmington. Herring joined SNCC in 1964, after a life-changing moment in which she was asked at the Democratic National Convention if she was hungry:

"Although I had questioned the customs and racist attitudes in my Southern white society when I was coming of age in the 1950s, I just hadn't seen the reality of hunger. Suddenly there was a shift in my consciousness, like changing your focus from the surface of the ocean and suddenly seeing its depths, the rocks and sand, the fish, the colors, the action. Layers of new meaning and awareness suddenly dawned in my muddled brain ... Before, I knew there was discrimination, but now I understood there was suffering."

When Herring and Holsaert appear this Sunday afternoon at the Durham Public Library to celebrate the publication of Hands on the Freedom Plow, one can dream that they'll be joined by retired Durham Superior Court Judge Karen Bethea-Shields. In 1974, when she was still known as Karen Galloway, Bethea-Shields became the first African-American woman ever to graduate from Duke Law School. The day she passed the bar exam, she was named Jerry Paul's co-counsel in his defense of Joan Little. Bethea-Shields's crucial work on her client's behalf is acclaimed in McGuire's Dark End of the Street. Joan Little was acquitted of all charges.

Faith S. Holsaert and contributor Margaret Herring, along with Nia Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse and a youth member of this group, will participate in a discussion of Hands on the Freedom Plow at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24, at Durham County Library.

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