Today CADL welcomes guest blogger Danielle McGuire, author of 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. McGuire will be our featured speaker at this year’s African American Family History Showcase on Saturday, February 26. Join us at the Downtown Lansing Library for this event beginning at 11 a.m. McGuire will be appearing from 1-2 p.m. Click here for more information on this and other Black History Month activities at the library.
Black History Month affords us the opportunity to explore African Americans’ long struggle for freedom and dignity in America. But too often, we hear the same simplistic summaries of the civil rights movement: stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream; and stories about Rosa Parks and her tired feet. I’ve always wanted to know more—especially about the ordinary, everyday people who made the movement happen day-by-day, week-by-week. I am drawn to the courageous black women whose names are often left out of history books, but whose powerful protests helped ignite the very movements we think we already know.
My first sense that historians had missed something big in the civil rights movement was in the winter of 1998. I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was listening to NPR. Veterans of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott were speaking about their experiences and Joe Azbell, the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser talked about a woman I had never heard of. He said something like, “Gertrude Perkins is never mentioned in the history books, but she had as much to do with the bus boycott as anyone on earth.” I stopped and looked at my friend, confused. “Everyone knows Rosa Parks was the one who caused the boycott,” I said, “so who the heck is Gertrude Perkins?” The next day, I went to the archive and ordered the Montgomery Advertiser on microfilm and started searching. I found out that two white police officers kidnapped and raped Gertrude Perkins, an African-American woman, in 1949. Instead of remaining silent, she told her minister, Reverend Solomon S. Seay Sr,. and he encouraged her to press charges. Local black activists and ministers rallied to her defense and launched a citywide campaign to bring her assailants to trial. Their public protests were so effective, the “Perkins case” appeared on the front page of the Advertiser, the local “white” newspaper, for nearly two months. In the end, however, an all-white, all-male grand jury refused to indict the policemen. Still, it was the first time the black ministers were, as Seay put it, “all shook up.”
I was not sure what to do with this information—how to fit it into a story that was already so well known. I couldn’t see how it connected until I started digging a little deeper. I was in the process of researching the 1959 gang-rape of Betty Jean Owens, a black college student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida when I kept coming across similar cases of white men attacking black women throughout the Deep South. It seemed as if every front page of every black newspaper between 1940 and 1950 featured the same story: a black woman was walking home from school, work or church when a group of white men abducted her at gunpoint, took her outside of town, and brutally assaulted her. I began sifting through court files and old trial transcripts and the evidence showed that white on black rape was endemic in the segregated South. Black women were vulnerable to racial and sexual violence and they often testified about their experiences—in churches, courtrooms, and congressional hearings. Their testimonies often led to civil rights campaigns that began with a simple demand for justice and became a struggle for human rights and human dignity. This was true in Montgomery, where Rosa Parks and her allies had been protesting rape and sexualized racial violence on the buses for nearly a decade before the 1955-56 boycott, as well as other major movement centers. I felt like I had discovered a whole new civil rights movement with black women and their struggle for bodily integrity at the center—a movement that is as poignant, painful and complicated as our own lives.
–Danielle McGuire, CADL Guest Blogger, Author of 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