Rosa Parks was a demure seamstress who defied a Montgomery, Ala., bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white man because — on that particular day — she was tired. Her spontaneous act sparked a 1955 bus boycott that launched the civil rights movement.
Sound familiar? It should. It's the tale told in history books. It's also just a tiny sliver of the truth. The flesh-and-blood Rosa Parks is a lot more interesting. "It's sad, I think," author Danielle L. McGuire told me. "We tend to like our heroes simple and meek."
"If we had a larger sense of who she was, a radical activist and warrior for human rights," instead of a powerless individual struck by chance, said McGuire, it would show the work and the time she put in over many years.
McGuire, an assistant professor in the history department of Wayne State University in Detroit, tells the history of Parks' activism in her just-published 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. She gives a name to a few of the many women who risked their lives by speaking about brutality and injustice. They claimed their dignity and womanhood in a society that refused to recognize either.
The struggle of black women in America is not over. There are hints of the fight, McGuire said, in some lingering attitudes toward the first African-American first lady, the idea that somehow "black women are not supposed to meet with kings and queens in Europe."
But the historic progress that has been made is because of women such as Recy Taylor.
In 1944 Taylor, a 24-year-old mother and sharecropper, was walking home from an evening of singing and praying at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Ala., when she was kidnapped by seven white men with shotguns and knives, raped and left for dead.
The Montgomery branch of the NAACP dispatched its best investigator and organizer, Rosa Parks — yes, Rosa Parks — to Abbeville. Despite a confession, corroborating testimony, affidavits from at least three eyewitnesses and overwhelming evidence, two all-white, all-male grand juries refused to issue any indictments. That result was not unusual across the South.
"They said they'd kill me if I told on them," Taylor said. But she spoke out anyway. When her life was threatened and the home she shared with her husband and toddler firebombed, she moved in with her father, who spent every night crouched in a tree, holding a shotgun that he was ready to use to protect his family. Decades before the women's movement, as McGuire writes, "Taylor's refusal to remain silent helped expose a ritual of rape in existence since slavery, inspired a nationwide campaign to defend black womanhood, and gave hope to thousands suffering through similar abuses."
Her case, and efforts led by Parks, who formed the Committee for Equal Justice, and others, drew attention and action. Alabama Gov. Chauncey Sparks received petitions and thousands of postcards, which McGuire found as she sifted through boxes of material in archives. On front pages of black newspapers over years and years, she read the chilling details of stories that mirrored Taylor's.
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."
With all the documented evidence presented in the book, McGuire hopes for some sense of justice for the survivors. "The assailants' names are published for all times … not swept under the carpet as if nothing ever happened." If the state has no statute of limitations, she hopes cases can be reopened, following the model of action in unsolved civil rights-era murders. "Why not focus on rape as well?"
On Inauguration Day in 2009 — just before Recy Taylor and her brother, Robert, walked with McGuire in Abbeville, along the path she had walked as a young wife and mother in 1944 — the three watched Barack Obama take the president's oath of office on the Lincoln Bible held by his wife, Michelle.
"Growing up in Jim Crow South," McGuire writes, "Taylor knew that black women were not even considered ladies. From slavery through most of the twentieth century, white Americans denied African-American women the most basic citizenship and human rights, especially the right to ownership and control of their own bodies."
"For Recy and Ruby," reads the dedication for At the Dark End of the Street. They serve as stand-ins for all the women who would not be silent.
Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning, Charlotte, N.C.-based national correspondent for PoliticsDaily.com, and a commentator on Fox News Rising Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.