Editor’s note: At the Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey told the story of Recy Taylor, a young mother in Alabama who was kidnapped and raped by six white men during the Jim Crow Era. Rosa Parks investigated Taylor’s case for the NAACP. In 2010, author and Wayne State University history Professor Danielle McGuire, told the story of Taylor, Parks and several other Southern black women who met the same fate as Taylor during segregation. Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Rosalind Bentley interviewed McGuire in 2010 about her book. Taylor and the other victims were not identified in the piece, but the book sheds light on a common tactic of sexual assault as a means of intimidation and control of African-American women by whites during the Jim Crow era. Here, we repost that article.
What if an author took Rosa Parks' story and gave it more muscle?
Instead of portraying Parks as expected — the quiet, dignified seamstress who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery because she was tired and fed up — what if the author re-imagined her boldly? As an investigator filled with resolve and steel, like a detective from "Law & Order: SVU"? Someone who attended a strategy meeting in Atlanta with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and who traveled the dangerous back roads of 1940s Alabama? Dressed in modest pumps, prim hat, armed with pen, pad, and maybe even a pistol.
Her mission: to interview women who'd gone through unspeakable horrors under the reign of Jim Crow.
That would be quite a work of fiction. But author Danielle McGuire claims it is largely the truth. Scholars, civil rights history buffs and the curious know that Parks' pivotal role in history was not accidental but cultivated over decades.
In McGuire's new nonfiction work, "At the Dark End of the Street" (Knopf; $27.95; 324 pages), the author explores Parks' involvement as an Alabama NAACP secretary and investigator through the 1940s and 1950s. Much of the book, however, casts an unblinking eye at the sort of cases McGuire says Parks, and subsequent civil rights workers, dealt with.
McGuire, an assistant history professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, will talk about the crimes she's uncovered at the Georgia Center for the Book on Tuesday. Powerful cases They were among the most heinous of the era, often the least publicized in the mainstream press and to this day some of the most difficult to discuss. Nonetheless, their impact and legacy were tremendous.
Through court documents, archival records, photographs and newspaper clippings, McGuire shows how, with startling regularity, African-American women and girls were abducted and sexually assaulted by enforcers of the Jim Crow South. Rarely were the assailants arrested or prosecuted, even when authorities knew their identities.
Those who were convicted served virtually no prison time. If victims stepped forward, the smear campaigns they endured were relentless. Yet there were victims who sought redress. McGuire makes the case that those crimes and the subsequent outcry they produced fomented the modern civil rights movement, perhaps more so than any other instances of post-Reconstruction injustice.
"This is not ancient history, " McGuire said. "These cases brought people together to campaign for civil rights in ways that they hadn't before, and those relationships built larger organizations that led to the stories that we already know, or think we know, like the Montgomery bus boycott."
McGuire got her introduction to one of the cases as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. It involved a co-ed in Tallahassee who was abducted at gunpoint and knifepoint by four white men after she and her date left a college dance in 1959.
While working on her doctorate at Rutgers University just after 2000, McGuire researched the case further and was astounded by what she found: Other incidents just like the Tallahassee co-ed's had occurred all over the South.
"That's when I realized this wasn't just a freak incident, " McGuire said. "This happened all the time. And while there were many black women who probably kept this to themselves, there were a lot who told their stories."
Rosa Parks' role in one 1944 case captivated McGuire. It was that of a 24-year-old sharecropper, wife and mother, who was kidnapped at riflepoint by seven men, driven deep into the woods and attacked. She and two other parishioners had been walking home from church that night in rural Abbeville, Ala.
One of the men involved later admitted under police questioning that he and his friends captured the woman. He even named his accomplices. But he claimed she was paid, not raped. In the end it was the word of the sharecropper against theirs. Initially no warrants were issued, but word of the incident spread. That's when Parks stepped in.
Based on interviews with the victim, who is now in her 90s, and her family, McGuire learned that Parks was sent by the head of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP to take the woman's statement and ferret out any information she could.
Parks took her findings back to her boss and other leaders. She helped establish a defense campaign for the victim, which galvanized civil rights advocates in the Midwest, up and down the East Coast, but especially in Montgomery.
The coalition applied so much pressure that the governor of Alabama ordered a special investigation. Which is exactly what advocates in most of these cases wanted: to bring the victims' stories out into the open and into a court of law, where the wrongs of segregation might be exposed to a worldwide audience and Jim Crow eventually dismantled.
That energy would eventually compel Parks' action in the bus boycott.
From Georgia to Arkansas, those who pushed to have the assault cases investigated and prosecuted wherever they happened had another very basic intent, McGuire said. And that was to achieve public dignity and protection to a group of women who had been denied it for generations.
Trials did take place. They were often ugly. The trial of the Tallahassee co-ed was an example. According to court records McGuire examined, the defense tried to discredit her in the crudest of ways. Her assailants were sent to prison, but they served short sentences. Victims emerge While researching the book, McGuire tried to track down other victims. Some had died. Some had married and changed their names.
Others didn't want to unearth horrible things they'd spent their lives burying. Since the book's release, however, a few survivors and their family members have reached out to McGuire. They've told her they're appreciative their stories have been revived and told with candor and respect.
That perhaps their degradation actually was more than a footnote in the larger civil rights struggle. Which is why this page of history is still relevant, McGuire said. For the Abbeville woman and others like her, it's also still a question of justice. When McGuire interviewed her in 2008, the woman agreed to take her to the very spot where she was attacked.
Though it had been nearly 65 years, she found it easily. The woman did not cry. McGuire remembers her simply saying that she didn't deserve what happened to her. To this day, no one has been indicted for the crime.