A Black Woman’s Body Was Never Her Own: Danielle McGuire talks race, gender, and sexuality at this week’s Common Hour

Christa Rodriguez || Staff Writer 

This Thursday’s Common Hour featured Danielle McGuire, Assistant Professor of History at Wayne State University and a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. McGuire mainly focuses on sexual violence against black women during the Civil Rights Era. Her work has been given wide attention in popular media, including her 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 has appeared on national radio, TV, C-SPAN, msnbc.com, local radio, and other outlets throughout the United States and Canada. She is also the recipient of the 2011 Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the 2011 William Smith Award. Her dissertation on sexualized racial violence won the 2008 Werner Scott prize for best dissertation in women’s history.

McGuire’s presentation began with a quote from Gunnar Mydral: “Sex is the principle around which the whole structure of segregation…is organized.” According to McGuire, the Civil Rights Movement started earlier than the bus boycott with Rosa Parks, and had much more to do with the resistance of rape and sexual assault against black women. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was only in high school when the movement truly began, the start of a decades long struggle to protect black women.

Especially in the South, white men would commonly assault black women in the 1940s and 1950s. They would lure them with the promise of finding good jobs or abduct them from public spaces. Black women claimed their humanity by organizing protests. In history textbooks, the Civil Rights Movement starts with Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. As McGuire stated, “the bus boycott had a past.”

However, the movement really started in 1949 with Gertrude Perkins, who was abducted and raped by two Montgomery Alabama police officers. She reported the crime to the police despite threats to her life if she did. The Mayor said her claims were “completely false.” Later on, Gertrude Perkins was attacked again by the police. This time, black people organized protests to stand against sexual violence.

Bus drivers had power under Jim Crow laws, and would often make lewd or aggressive statements to black women.. Black working-class women used the buses to go to the white side of town to work in white people’s kitchens. These women were constantly harassed and physically abused. Instead of taking the buses, some would walk hundreds of miles to protest and take back their bodies. Campaigns to defend black womanhood all over the South were organizing in opposition to the assaults against black women.

Sexual exploitation of women goes back to slavery. McGuire said, “The children of slave women [were] the property of their masters.” Some slave owners had economic reasons to rape their female slaves. The resulting child would automatically be their property and would provide more laborers. After slavery ended, sexual violence was still a way for white men to maintain power over black women.

In Tallahassee, Florida, in 1959, four white men who had assaulted Betty Jean Owen were sentenced to life. This broke the Southern tradition and prevalence of white supremacy if only temporarily. This was the first time a case like this gave a life sentence. Just five years earlier segregation was outlawed, but, as McGuire pointed out, “desegregation meant little if you couldn’t walk down the street unmolested.” Some of the white men sentenced to life are still in jail today, proving that “this is not an ancient past, but a past that is very much alive.” Another story was of Joan Little, a 20-year-old black inmate in North Carolina. The sheriff went into her cell and threatened her with an ice pick and sexually assaulted her. She was able to grab the ice pick and stab him to death with it. The protesters at her trial were “led primarily by African American women.” A unique jury of half black, half white, half men, and half women unanimously voted to acquit her of murder.

In 2009, McGuire was able to watch President Obama’s inauguration with rape victim Recy Taylor. McGuire specified that “black women weren’t even considered ladies” during the Civil Rights Movement. Seeing Michelle Obama as the First Lady was a victory for dignity and respect.

McGuire encouraged students to “use your voice as a weapon” for change. She said that people do not need a leader to follow in order to start a movement. We can be our own leaders. McGuire said, “All of you have the power to change the world that we live in.”

First-year Christa Rodriguez is a staff writer. Her email is crodrigue@fandm.edu.

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