At the Dark End of the Street

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Danielle L. McGuire. 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. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2011. pp. xxii + 324. $16.95. Hardback: ISBN 9780307269065

Contents

Summary

Danielle McGuire contends that the civil rights movement has largely been portrayed as an heroic leadership contest “between black and white men,” a narrative that neglects the long struggle African American women endured and fought against sexual violence (p. xix). McGuire seeks to expand the definition of the civil rights movement by demonstrating how women deployed “their voices as weapons in the wars against white supremacy” through initiating legal cases against the sexual violence that occurred in private homes and public spaces (p. xix). Uncovering the stories of shocking violence and indifference through abduction, exploitation, and prejudicial legal systems, McGuire connects Southern cultural norms, political discrimination, and legal conduct to the white supremacy that denied African American women their civil rights for decades in the South. She contends that African American women’s battle in their homes, on busses, and in jails to protect their bodies against “sexual violence and interracial rape” constituted the birth of the “modern civil rights movement” and that this arena where women “sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy” should also be included in the narrative of the African American civil rights movement (p. 39).

McGuire contends that it was “working-and middle-class women, fed up with decades of abuse” who initiated and sustained the Montgomery bus boycotts in 1955 as a “women’s movement for dignity, respect, and bodily integrity” rather than a bold step by militant male ministers (p. 43). To bolster this argument, she begins her narrative with a case of kidnapping and rape in 1944 in Alabama that prompted the Montgomery NAACP office to send their best antirape activist, Rosa Parks, to investigate. McGuire argues that Rosa Parks had long served as a militant NAACP activist and fundraiser working to publicize crimes against Southern women before she seized an opportunity to resist against bus driver cruelty on December 1, 1955. McGuire details a history of demeaning and violent abuses bus drivers heaped upon African American women that created an atmosphere of terror for Southern bus passengers to show that the women of Montgomery were ready to instigate a change. Parks just happened to be the right sort of respectable symbolic victim to initiate a boycott and once she became the symbol of the boycott, her “history as an activist and defiant race woman disappeared from public view” (p. 82). McGuire contends the popular narrative of the boycotts began as a call from Montgomery Improvement Association’s E. D. Nixon to area ministers to stop “shirking their manly duties” and to “rise up in defense of black womanhood” (p. 85). This male-centered narrative culminated with the media’s creation of Dr. Martin Luther King as an “apostle of civil rights” for his role in the boycott (p. 106). The resulting effect of “erasing women from the movement” meant that women like Jo Ann Robinson, chief strategist for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and her role in organizing and coordinating carpools, campaigns, fundraising, and communications remained invisible to the popular narratives and that the four women whose lawsuits finally ended segregation on public transportation also received little historical notice (p. 89).

McGuire’s focus on African American women’s battles for bodily integrity places emphasis on stories of courage and courtroom battles. While many viewed Brown v. Board of Education as a milestone for desegregation, McGuire shows another side to this victory by describing the violent reaction and attacks against African Americans by white supremacists to restore a perceived notion of social order through violent intimidation tactics. Incidents like the “Kissing Case” involving the beating and sentencing of elementary-aged schoolchildren for an innocent game gained international attention and exposed the South’s “growing racial and sexual hysteria” (p. 128). McGuire provides examples of cases like the Florida A & M University students rape trial of 1959 that slowly turned the tide in securing convictions for white defendants (p. 153). McGuire explores the long history of sexual domination as a tool for white supremacy and also as a reaction to fears of loss of social and political power and control. This domination was not limited to private spaces of homes or dark roads, or even public spaces like busses, but extended to places that should have been protected by symbols of power. McGuire continues the story of exploitation by documenting stories of abuse by police and in prisons, culminating with the 1975 trial of Joan Little, accused of killing her jailor during an attempted sexual attack. According to McGuire, the case of Joan Little became a case against “the entire history of the South’s racial and sexual subjugation” when the defending attorney asked the jury whether it wanted to “continue to live in a world dominated by white supremacy” (p. 225). Whether Little’s case constituted a product of second-wave feminism or not, McGuire uses the case and the legal rights won in Loving v. Virginia to demonstrate that after decades of abuse, activism, and court cases, African American women had won rights against sexual violence and to claim control of their bodies and to choose their sexual partners, a form of civil rights that McGuire contends receives less historical notice than it deserves.

Commentary

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

McGuire’s contention that resistance against systematic and endemic abuse constitutes a critical aspect of the civil rights movement adds valuable insight into how historians define the temporal, thematic, and racial parameters of the civil rights movement. In McGuire’s viewpoint, a more expansive definition of civil rights should take into account African American women’s fight to protect sexual rights and control of one’s body. This battleground reveals a more personal space than the legal battles for economic equality and the right to work as defined by Risa Goluboff in The Lost Promise of Civil Rights or rights to desegregated education and public spaces as described by William Chafe in Civilities and Civil Rights. McGuire questions the construction of the popular narrative of the Montgomery bus boycott as a “King-centric and male-dominated version of events” to challenge how we perceive events and offer a compelling and convincing counter-argument for the spontaneous combustion of activism that depended so heavily on the support of women through her research into the history of white male on African American female violence in the South (p. 108).

The litany of court cases described by McGuire provides shocking evidence of the train of abuses suffered by women in the South and the degree of hesitation Southern courts responded to calls for justice. By publicizing trials that failed to deliver justice along with trials that made progress in dismantling the walls of entrenched sexual and racial prejudice, McGuire illuminates the degree of deprivation of sexual rights endured by African American women in contrast with the preferential and hyper-sexualized rights of white men. To end her argument with the case of Loving v. Virginia would seem adequate to convince that patterns of sexual domination resulted from the fears and fantasies of white men for African American women’s bodies and by establishing the right to interracial marriage these fears could be countered with constitutional rights, yet McGuire takes the issue of bodily integrity one step further to the case of Joan Little. According to McGuire, the issue of respectability made Rosa Parks the perfect choice as the symbolic spark to initiate the Montgomery bus boycotts. Joan Little, who could not claim social markers of respectability, would challenge the courts to prove that women had the right to defend their sexual integrity with or without a perceived veneer of “respectability,” especially within the confines of prison, a site where many African American women faced degradation and exploitation. According to McGuire, Little’s acquittal helped “dispel stereotypes of black women as promiscuous jezebels who could not be legitimate victims of rape” and forced to some degree African American women to be considered as “citizens and human beings” rather than on considerations of individual respectability (pp. 226, 227).

There are a few questions that remain with McGuire’s analysis. By placing these arguments solely as a right of African American women versus white Southern men, she limits the definition of sexual rights to a specific racial group within a specific chronology, but opens the door to expanding scholarship to include how these cases and experiences influence other minority groups facing similar exploitation. Also, to compare legal cases across the South gives the impression that all Southern courts failed to live up to legal expectations or that this was a strictly Southern phenomenon. A broader interpretation of comparative Northern cases may help shed light on viewpoints across the Mason-Dixon line and how well entrenched the jury decisions to indict were based on local prejudices or national norms. While there have been many interpretations of the civil rights movement and many definitions of the chronology, the legal rights, the battlegrounds, and the groups involved, McGuire’s arguments expands yet again our understanding of a framework of civil rights to a broader time period and a new category of rights.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

Even for historians who are not well-versed in the history of the civil rights, it is clear that Danielle McGuire has proposed a radical new way to view the emergence of the civil rights movement. By examining the long history of black women’s resistance to white oppression, especially sexual assault, McGuire identifies early roots of protest and action that lead black women into crucial roles during the rise of civil rights activism. McGuire’s challenge of traditional narratives puts aside the male leadership, and even argues that some men were conscious of their dependence on black women’s efforts, yet took the spotlight and leadership away from women.

Her narrative not only attacks the roles of male leaders, but also revives the activism of women such as Rosa Parks, whose image was altered dramatically during the Montgomery bus boycott and her trial. Despite a long career of activism, Parks was re-imagined as a wholesome, pure example of black womanhood who could stand in for the plight of the black community. McGuire argues that women’s role in the civil rights movement was important, possibly fundamental, but is often forgotten in its histories.

McGuire’s research dug up many incidents of sexual violence against black women throughout the South, but she does not bring those stories forward merely to underline the problems faced by black women. Her larger goal is to show that black women actively resisted and protested the prevalence of white men’s violence toward black women, and from that tradition of dissent grew the forms of activism that shaped the civil rights movement. McGuire’s evidence and arguments are compelling. Although she does not ignore completely the struggle between black and white men, she brings into the history of the civil rights the women whose lifelong battle against oppression trained them for the emerging movement.

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