FDL Book Salon Welcomes Danielle 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
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]
Steven Lawson, Host:
Danielle McGuire, the prizewinning author and assistant professor of history at Wayne State University, has written a beautifully crafted and richly researched testimony of the hidden transcript of the Civil Rights Movement. 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 makes a powerful case for re-imagining the Civil Rights Movement in the South through the lens of sexual violence. This path-breaking book spotlights incidents of sexual assault from the early 1940s to the mid 1970s. Rather than remaining secreted, these brutal attacks inspired community protests among African Americans and their white allies. These grassroots struggles of resistance to white supremacy helped initiate the wider Civil Rights Movement that emerged after World War II and which eventually forced the national government to end racial segregation and black disfranchisement. Also, these community-based networks of support provided the infrastructure for the more familiar history of civil rights activities in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, Tallahassee, Florida and other southern cities.
For many years the names of very few women appeared in the standard histories of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks was one of the few. Yet even though Parks is well known for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott, she has never emerged as the fully developed leader portrayed by Professor McGuire. Parks was much more than a seamstress who felt too tired to give up her seat on a segregated bus. She had a long history as a civil rights activist, including efforts to obtain justice for rape victims in Alabama. Indeed, in perhaps the most remarkable feature of this book, the author shows how the Montgomery bus boycott emerged out of Parks’ and other lesser-known black women’s struggles to protect themselves from the daily violence accompanying Jim Crow. In her brilliant reinterpretation, the Montgomery bus boycott becomes more than a protest against segregated transportation. Instead, it grew out of longstanding attempts by the black community to safeguard women and provided an important means for black men to assert themselves toward this end.
Through her presentation of poignant stories of many unheralded women previously lost to history—Recy Taylor, Gertrude Perkins, Betty Jean Owens, Rosa Lee Coates, and Joan Little to name several—McGuire discovers what she calls “a culture of testimony” evidenced in the voices of African American rape victims. Rather than remaining silent in the face of sexual assault, a model of behavior which many black women considered respectable, the Recy Taylors of the South chose bravely to bear public witness against their white attackers. Their courageous testimony to the police and in court did not usually bring personal victory within the racist legal system, but it did spark successful community protests for racial equality.
In writing Dark End of the Street, Professor McGuire functions partly as historian, partly as detective. She worked assiduously to find sources—in local black newspapers as well as the mainstream press, in police records, in the minutes of women’s and civil rights organizations, and in the memories of elderly African American women—that allowed her to trace the links between violence and civil rights activism throughout the South. She spent a good deal of time interviewing some of the long-forgotten victims of sexual violence. She tracked down Recy Taylor in 2008 and tells the moving story of joining her and her family in Alabama (near the very place she had been raped almost seventy years earlier) to watch on television the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States. In ways that Danielle McGuire is the first to reveal, Taylor and others like her paved the way for this remarkable triumph decades later.