White men had always used the “myth of the black beast rapist” whenever they saw their power slip, said McGuire. Typical was an Alabama state senator’s argument that desegregation was a ruse to “open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men.”
“That was the most frustrating part of doing this work,” McGuire said of the 12 years she spent with the project. “White-supremacist justification for their subjugation of black men was protecting white womanhood,” she said, while white men were violating black women, “turning truth on its head to cover up their own deviance.”
In the society that refused to hold the rapists accountable, black women — whether housewife or schoolgirl – were reduced to crude, hypersexual, barely human stereotypes. When Norman Cannon was found guilty of raping 15-year-old Rosa Lee Coates in Hattiesburg in 1965, it was the first time since Reconstruction that a white man had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for raping a black person. On the witness stand, the traumatized girl’s testimony made a mockery of Cannon’s efforts to slander her, and convinced an all-white jury to hand down the historic sentence.
Of course, black men had been executed and lynched for mere accusations, and had even been held on the ludicrous charge of “eye rape” for supposedly glancing in the direction of a white woman.
“The thing that surprised me the most,” said McGuire, “was how brave these women were during the time in which this was happening.” She said she was “shocked and astounded and grateful” for their courage and strength, which “should give all of us, particularly women who are survivors of sexual violence, the strength to speak out.”
When, in 1947 in Meridian, Miss., a prominent white businessman beat and raped Ruby Atee Pigford, then tied her to the back of his car and dragged her through town, he did not expect the black teenager to report the crime. A picture of her bloodied body accompanied her story in the Pittsburgh Courier.
In 1949, 25-year-old Gertrude Perkins was kidnapped and raped by two Montgomery, Ala., police officers. The Rev. Solomon Seay led a campaign for justice that made headlines, even in the city’s white daily newspaper. Though jurors refused to indict anyone, it was one more case of justice denied that culminated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Domestics, maids and working-class black women rode the buses to work and for years were disrespected by drivers who slapped and insulted them. They formed the backbone for what was at its core a women’s movement. The success of the Montgomery Improvement Association’s (MIA) boycott made a name for the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His leadership was important, but no more so than the efforts of chief strategist Jo Ann Robinson, a member of the Women’s Political Council. She negotiated with city and bus-company officials, edited the MIA newsletter, ferried workers to and from their jobs for more than a year — all while teaching full time at Alabama State.
McGuire said that the women themselves ceded the spotlight to the black men who had been denied their manhood for so long. Media interviewed the men, relegating women to the role of helper, and seldom followed up with questions when the issue of sexual violence was raised. “People have always been uncomfortable talking about it,” McGuire says.
“White women have not always acknowledged their debt to these black women,” she says, who had been speaking out about rape “for a long, long time.”