On September 3, 1944, Mrs. Recy Taylor, a slender, copper-colored and beautiful twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, walked home from a church revival in Abbeville, Alabama. Just past midnight, a gang of armed white men, kidnapped her off the street, forced her into their green Chevrolet and drove her to a wooded stand a few miles outside town. Herbert Lovett, a 24-year-old private in the United States Army ordered Taylor to undress and get on the ground. “Act just like you do with your husband,” he said, “or I’ll cut your damn throat.” Lovett was the first of six men who raped Taylor that night.
When they finally released Taylor, they blindfolded her and threatened to kill her if she said anything. “Don’t move until we get away from here,” one of them yelled as their car pulled away. Taylor waited until she was alone, then pulled off the blindfold, got her bearings, and staggered toward home where she told her father, her husband, 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, listened carefully as the caller detailed a brutal gang rape. He promised to send his best investigator to Abbeville.
Her name was Rosa Parks.
It was a decade before the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and Rosa Parks was already a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an anti-rape activist. In 1943, she became secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, which meant that she was regularly dispatched to investigate incidents of racial violence throughout the state. When she heard about what happened to Recy Taylor, she grabbed her notepad and a pen and drove to Abbeville, where she interviewed Taylor at length.
Rosa Parks then carried Taylor’s testimony back to Montgomery where she and the city’s most militant activists formed the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. With help from activists around the state, including the mostly female-led Southern Negro Youth Congress, they launched a nationwide protest movement that the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”
Eleven years later, this group of homegrown activists would become better known as the Montgomery Improvement Association, vaunting its first president, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to international prominence and launching a movement that would help change the world. But when that coalition first took root, Dr. King was still in high school.
The 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the modern civil rights movement, was in many ways, the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect black women, like Recy Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.
The kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor was not unusual in the segregated South. It was an act of racial terror rooted in slavery. Colonial-era laws banned interracial marriage, but not fornication or childbirth out of wedlock; and made the offspring of enslaved women the property of their masters, giving white men a financial incentive to sexually exploit and control their slaves. This also awarded white men exclusive sexual access to white women while denying black women the respectability and rights garnered through a legal relationship. These laws maintained white men’s position atop the social, political and economic hierarchy.
When slavery ended, these laws, and the practices that grew out of them, remained. From Reconstruction through the better part of the twentieth century, white men abducted and assaulted black women and girls with impunity. They lured them away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work or church; and sexually humiliated and assaulted them on streetcars and buses, in taxicabs and trains, and other public spaces. As Chana Kai Lee, the biographer of the acclaimed freedom fighter, Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “a black woman’s body was never hers alone.”
Black women and girls fought back by testifying about their brutal assaults and resisting systemic racism and sexism. In fact, decades before second-wave feminists urged rape survivors to “speak out,” African American women’s testimonies and public protests galvanized local, national and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity.
Indeed, Black women launched the first public attacks on sexual violence as a “systemic abuse of women.” Harriet Jacobs detailed her master’s lechery in her autobiography to “arouse the women of the North” and “convince the people of the Free States what slavery really is.” After slavery, Black clubwomen called for the protection of black women’s bodily integrity as part of a larger struggle against white supremacy and lynching. In 1892, for example, Ida B. Wells told a massive crowd at Lyric Hall in New York that while black men were being accused of ravishing white women, “the rape of helpless Negro girls, which began in slavery days, still continues without reproof from church, state or press.“ At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Fannie Barrier Williams spoke out against the “shameful fact that I am constantly in receipt of letters from the still unprotected women of the South….” Anna Julia Cooper, a Washington D.C. educator, author and respected clubwoman, echoed Williams’s testimony. Black women, she told the crowd, were engaged in a “painful, patient, and silent toil…to gain title to the bodies of their daughters.”
Throughout the twentieth century, African American women persisted in telling their stories, frequently cited in local and national NAACP reports. Their testimonies and demands for protection spilled out in letters to the Department of Justice 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 white supremacy and patriarchy.
When Recy Taylor spoke out against her assailants in Abbeville, Alabama, and Rosa Parks and her allies in Montgomery mobilized to defend her in 1944, they joined this tradition of testimony and protest. Their work laid a foundation for a series of campaigns in Montgomery from the late 1940s through 1956 to defend and protect black women’s bodily integrity, especially on the city’s buses, which were sites of violence and vulnerability. It was much easier and safer for black women and girls, who made up the majority of Montgomery City Line’s ridership, to stop riding the buses than it was to bring their assailants—usually white policemen or bus drivers—to justice. By walking hundreds of miles to protest humiliation and testifying publicly about physical and sexual abuse, black women reclaimed their bodies and demanded to be treated with dignity and respect.
Montgomery, Alabama was not the only place in which attacks on black women fueled protests against white supremacy. Between 1940 and 1975, sexual violence and interracial rape became one crucial battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy.
Nowhere was this more apparent and more important than in Tallahassee, Florida, where Betty Jean Owens, a student at the historically black FAMU, stood in front of an all-white jury in 1959 and testified about being kidnapped and gang raped by four white men. Owens’ testimony focused national attention on the sexual exploitation of African American women and led to a historic guilty verdict that was as much a watershed then as it is today.
Like the Tallahassee case, the 1965 trial of Norman Cannon, a white man who abducted and raped a black teenager named Rosa Lee Coates in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, had broad implications for both the Mississippi movement and the African-American freedom struggle as a whole. The guilty verdict and life sentence was recognized nationally as a major civil rights victory and ought to be considered one of pillars of the modern civil rights movement.
An analysis of sex and sexualized violence in well-known civil rights narratives changes the historical markers and meanings of the movement. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is often referenced as the bookend of the modern civil rights movement, one of the last legal barriers to black women’s bodily integrity and respectability fell in 1967, when the Supreme Court banned laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision. Only by placing the Loving decision within the long struggle for black women’s bodily integrity and freedom from racial and sexual terror, can it be properly recognized as a major marker in black freedom movement.
The struggle did not stop with that landmark victory. The right of African-American women to defend themselves from white men’s sexual advances was tested in the 1975 trial of Joan Little, a twenty-year old black female inmate from Washington, North Carolina, who killed a white police officer after he allegedly sexually assaulted her. The broad coalition of supporters who rallied to Little’s defense showed continuity with the past. The Free Joan Little movement mirrored the eclectic coalition that formed to demand justice for Recy Taylor in 1944. They were both led primarily by African-American women, including Rosa Parks, and helped serve as catalysts for larger movements against rape, police violence, and racial inequality. The stunning not-guilty verdict, announced by an interracial jury, signaled a significant break from the past and pointed to future struggles.
The Little case made visible the vulnerability of Black women and other women of color trapped in the carceral system. However, their experiences with state-sanctioned and police violence are still too often minimized, ignored or disappeared from campaigns for racial justice despite the fact that black women have historically led and continue to lead these resistance movements. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the unpunished murder of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, drew national attention to police violence against black men and boys, which tended to obscure similar violence against black women and girls. As a result, the African American Policy Forum, co-founded by legal scholar and organizer, Kimberle Crenshaw, began the #SayHerName campaign in 2014 to make visible black women and girls’ experiences with police brutality and state violence. Similar to the Free Joan Little movement in 1975 and the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor in 1944, the #SayHerName campaign demands that we center black women and girls’ experiences and testimonies in order to understand the ways in which interpersonal and institutional violence is intersectional. Take for example the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma police officer who was sentenced to 263 years in prison for committing sex crimes against 13 different African American women and girls. He chose his victims based upon their class, race, age and gender-based vulnerabilities. Like the white men who kidnapped and raped Recy Taylor, Betty Jean Owens, and Joan Little, Holzclaw counted on black women’s historic invisibility and erasure as victims to ensure his innocence. Their testimonies against him and in defense of their bodies and lives are part of the long legacy of Black women demanding visibility and justice.
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. Understanding the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, demands that we center Black women—their experiences, their testimonies, their resistance and their leadership—in the long history of the African American freedom movement and in ongoing struggles for justice and equality today.
Danielle McGuire is an award-winning historian and author. She earned a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and an M.A. and B.A. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and has appeared on National Public Radio, BookTV (CSPAN), CNN, MSNBC.com and dozens of local radio stations throughout the United States, South America, and Canada. Her first book, 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 (2010), won the OAH Frederick Jackson Turner Award, the Lillian Smith Award, and the Southern Association of Women Historians' Julia Cherry Spruill Award. Her new book, "Murder in the Motor City: The 1967 Detroit Uprising and American Injustice," is forthcoming from Knopf.