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 by Danielle L. McGuire
It turns out Rosa Parks wasn’t just some little old lady with sore feet who got sick of giving up her seat on the bus to white passengers. Though it is often referred to as one woman’s spontaneous act, the event credited with kick-starting the civil rights movement was absolutely planned for and eagerly awaited by thousands poised for social change. And, rather than an anonymous black woman who just couldn’t take it anymore, Parks was a veteran organizer and anti-rape activist who hadn’t been able to take it anymore for a very long time.
In her impressive, important new book, Danielle L. McGuire fleshes out the narrative of the civil rights movement—widely understood as a movement led by ministers—to include black women across the South who attempted to gain legal redress for sexualized violence perpetrated upon them by white men, which was most often all but ignored by the justice system. McGuire shines a light on the landmark court cases that, one by one, forced Southern society to reckon with its treatment of black women as something less than human and deserving of bodily autonomy. At the Dark End of the Street is not an easy read. The violence, and the court’s infuriatingly brusque dismissal of it, can make for a stop-and-start experience. It is well worth pressing on to bear witness to the crimes that are far from ancient history and to reach the moments of triumph, some of which are legendary but many of which were, until now, relegated to the pages of law books. McGuire begins with the 1944 gang rape of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama. Taylor and two friends were walking home from church when seven armed white men descended upon them and forced Taylor into their car. The Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP sent its best investigator to Abbeville to help Taylor get justice. “That investigator would launch a movement that would ultimately change the world,” McGuire writes. “Her name was Rosa Parks.”
Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice and, alongside other black-activist organizations, made the Taylor case an international example of the need for equal justice in the American South. The groups worked on a variety of issues, including police brutality, workers’ rights, and voter registration. Indeed, it was after Parks’ second attempt to register to vote, in 1943, that she first encountered bus driver James F. Blake, who threw her off his bus when she refused to reenter from the rear door after paying her fare in front. Twelve years later, the same bus driver called police when Parks refused to give up her seat—the moment of resistance that resulted in the Montgomery bus boycott and the renaming of the Committee for Equal Justice as the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the young Martin Luther King Jr.
McGuire introduces us to Mary Fair Burks, founder and first president of the Women’s Political Council, and her successor, Jo Ann Robinson. In 1953, members of the WPC stormed a Montgomery city commissioners meeting where Robinson “railed against the abuses heaped upon black female bus riders and argued that African Americans should not have to stand over empty seats when the black section was filled and the white section was empty.” In Mississippi, Louise Thompson Patterson and Beulah Richardson formed the Sojourners for Truth and Justice in 1951. They published a pamphlet calling for a national meeting of black women in Washington, D.C. “We have seen our brothers beaten, shot, and stamped to death by police,” the pamphlet stated, “[and] we have seen our daughters raped and degraded, and when one dares rise in defense of her honor she is jailed for life.” On Sept. 29 of that year, more than one hundred black women came to Washington to share stories and strategize.
Using a vast array of sources, including personal interviews, McGuire explores a complicated web of issues surrounding black women's resistance, such as how black women’s perceived morals and position in the social hierarchy factored into court cases, as well as how the Anglo-centric feminist movement of the 1970s—generally credited with bringing rape to the national consciousness—owes quite a debt to the work that had already been done by black women. She also discusses conditions that prevented black men from effectively fighting back on behalf of their wives, mothers, and daughters. McGuire deepens our understanding of the American civil rights movement, and she reminds us that sexualized violence against black women by white men was not only common but was accepted and even expected by white social norms. “Like the kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor…and hundreds of other African-American women throughout the segregated South,” McGuire writes, “these brutal attacks almost always began at the dark end of the street. But African Americans would never let them stay there.”
Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 324 pages
This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 01/14/2011