Before the Bus, Rosa Parks Was a Sexual Assault Investigator

Before the Bus, Rosa Parks Was a Sexual Assault Investigator

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Revered as a civil rights icon, Rosa Parks is best known for sparking the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, but her activism in the Black community predates that day. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1943, 12 years before that fateful commute. In her first years in the organization, she worked specifically on criminal justice and its application in Alabama communities.

One part of this was protecting Black men from false accusations and lynchings; the other was ensuring that Black people who had been sexually assaulted by white people could get their day in court. This particular issue was close to Parks’ heart as in 1931 a white male neighbor had attempted to assault her.

Parks resisted and later said of the incident, “I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never.” That incident was on her mind when she traveled to Abbeville, Alabama, in the autumn of 1944 to deal with a disturbing case chronicled in the new movie The Rape of Recy Taylor.

It was the evening of Sunday, September 3 and 24-year-old sharecropper Recy Taylor was walking home from church with her friend Fannie Daniel. A car carrying seven young white men approached Taylor and accused her of attacking a white boy in a nearby town. The men forced her into the car under the pretense of taking the married mother to see the sheriff. They did not. They blindfolded and gang-raped her, then threatened her with death if she reported the crime.

However, Recy Taylor did not keep quiet. After her father found her making her way home, she told him of her ordeal and then they went to the sheriff. Her friend, who had witnessed the abduction, also contacted the police.

According to Taylor, the sheriff drove her to a store after hearing her story, to see if they could find any of her rapists. In fact, he was able to find two of the young men. In a 2011 interview with NPR, Taylor recounted, “he asked the boys, was y’all with this lady tonight? And the white boys said, yeah. Mr. Louis told them to get in the car and he left. We didn’t have no other conversation said about the boys. He just left.”

Days later, news of the alleged assault reached the Montgomery offices of the NAACP and they responded by sending along an investigator, Rosa Parks.

In 1940s Alabama, segregationist laws and attitudes permeated every echelon of society. When Rosa Parks made her way to the Taylor home, she found the town’s sheriff there waiting for her.

He made sure to make his presence known by repeatedly driving past the house, eventually entering the home and demanding Parks leave under the pretense of not wanting “troublemakers” in town. Parks was undeterred and returned to Montgomery where she promptly launched the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor. The committee made sure the case received national attention and by October, it was headline news.

On October 9 of that year, a grand jury refused to indict the defendants. At the time, the Chicago Defender reported that the suspects’ lawyer offered $600 to Willie Guy Taylor, Recy’s husband, for his wife’s silence. Parks fired off a letter to the state’s governor asking him not to “fail to let the people of Alabama know that there is equal justice for all of our citizens.”

No charges were ever brought against the men. Taylor’s story, and Parks’ involvement in it, received renewed attention as a result of the book, At the Dark End of the Street, by Danielle L. McGuire, published in 2010. In 2011, the Alabama House of Representatives approved a resolution apologizing to Recy Taylor for what they characterized as the state’s “morally abhorrent and repugnant” failure to prosecute, nearly 70 years after the fact.

Taylor died on December 28, 2017, at age 97.

Before Montgomery: The Untaught History of Rosa Parks

R ecently in conversation with a friend about how the world wars are taught, we came to the agreement that the inter-war years are treated like they don’t exist. That void of 1919–1938 where race riots could be be found in many British cities, and the infamous Tulsa massacre of 1921. This blog isn’t about the inter-war years but how the story of Rosa Parks is also treated as a figment — in the sense she only became part of the “official history” when she refused to give up her seat to a White person and move to the back of the bus.

Like many of us, at school I learned that Rosa Parks was a pioneer and her actions on the bus that day in 1955 was one of the main catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement. A movement that went on to be remembered through The Male Gaze (but that’s another story). If we are to take how educators in English schools, at least how I was taught, as fact, they would have us believe that the event that lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first time Rosa Parks showed us the meaning of activism and real equality work.

Ironically, in the October of 2018 (UK Black History Month), series eleven of Doctor Who aired an episode called ‘Rosa’ about civil rights activist Rosa Parks. In my view one of the most visceral betrayals of racism put to screen but it also shows a side to Parks I didn’t learn at school. It doesn’t portray her as a saintly woman who became an activist on a whim, but orates that she always had an activist spirit within her, inspiring others to do so as well.

Whilst prior, the scariest thing the Doctor and co had faced were space monsters, after ‘Rosa’ — I found it was the ugly head of Jim Crow. What’s more, this episode was written by Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses Pig Heart Boy Boys Don’t Cry). Rewatching that episode now, in the aftermath of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as today Black people are still being lynched by white racists, frequently police officers, it leaves one thinking.

However, going back into history even years before she sat down, we see that Rosa was always an activist at heart and came from a family that set a precedent of social good, including a value on education. Parks’ mother Leona Edwards was the youngest of three and attended the Payne University in Selma, Alabama but didn’t earn a degree. Becoming a rural schoolteacher, she showed Rosa the value of education and self-respect, things Rosa would carry with her into her community organising and activist work. We know Rosa as the woman that stood up to White supremacy but it has a precedent.

Her grandfather Sylvester Edwards was a supporter of the Jamaican Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, teaching Rosa not to accept bullies or mistreatment from anyone, depicted in a childhood encounter she had with a White boy named Franklin who threatened to beat her up.

Even as a young girl, she was raised to stand up to injustice and resist acts of violence on her own persons. Knowing how Rosa ended up is not surprising when we know where/what Rosa comes from and the values instilled in her speak to the person she would become. Also, the person history remembers her as in BHM camapaigns — on both sides of the pond, in Britain and the United States. In 1931, Parks was the victim of an attempted rape by a White man, a neighbour of her employers. This encounter could have been the inspiration for her later work as a rape investigator in the South, specficially of Black women that had been victims of rape and sexual assault by White men.

Into the 1940s and 1950s, Rosa Parks managed E.D. Nixon’s office. He was an activist, and preacher’s son born in Lowndes County, Alabama. During the 1940s he founded the Alabama Voters League and was the president for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [N .A. A. C. P]. Then in 1954 he became the first Black man to run for public office since the decade(ish) following the Civil War. In 1955, he helped organise the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks’ work with Nixon introdcued her to other activists and union organisers, progressives like her. Ten years earlier, in September, 1944, a Black woman and sharecropper Recy Taylor, was walking home from church when she was gang-raped by six White men. Rosa Parks was part of the N .A. A. C. P at the time and was tasked with investigating the case. ‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ never saw an indictment. Coming from the family she came from tied with her experiences of community organising and activism, it doesn’t take me much to see why Rosa Parks became an advocate for justice and social change.

With the support of poet Langston Hughes, historian and cultural theorist W. E. B DuBois and activist Mary Church Terrell, this case rose to an incredibly high profile.

Joining the N.A.A.C.P in 1943, she became secretary and investigated all numbers of cases, including murder, police brutality, rape and racism. In 1946, the Montgomery chapter defended the paroled Scottsboro survivor Andy Wright and gained him employment. And in 1948, she became the first state secretary for the organisation’s chapter. In 1949, she revived Montgomery’s Youth Council, training the next generation of activists to challenge America’s culture of segregation via its Jim Crow laws.

I will end this post in saying that the way Rosa Parks is taught is as “one of the good ones”, much akin to her contemporary Martin Luther King who was also anti-imperialist and a socialist. She is taught as a quaint woman, saintly, resisted without violence (that she did). But her actions in 1955 are only one part of a wider story of advocacy and resistance, much of it at great personal risk. Being a rape investigator in the South during Jim Crow is no small feat. Rosa Parks wasn’t some quaint woman but one of the giants of activism and her generation. Much akin to other Black American women activists then, including Fanny Lou Hamer, her story is often overshadowed by that of men.

In schools’ bid to decolonise curricula, perhaps they should look into what is already being taught and analyse the missing pieces of those stories. ‘Montgomery’ is only part of the Rosa Parks story. There is plenty to discuss before she sat down and after she was released from prison.

Dying in 2005, she lived a remarkable life. I wonder if young people today would be interested in looking into the ‘Rape of Recy Taylor.’ Not only from a historical angle but also in: criminology, sociology and journalism as well — from the context of interracial rapes in Jim Crow America and how Whiteness as terror against Black people was almost never indicted, to the press coverage of these events and the sociological frames of race politics in those years.

Even before the bus, Rosa Parks had a history of heroism

In the documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” about a brutal 1944 crime and its aftermath, a surprising name emerges: Rosa Parks.

“The mythology around her was that she was this tired seamstress who just didn’t want to change her seat on the bus,” says the film’s director, Nancy Buirski, referring to the 1955 event that turned Parks into a civil-rights icon. But that doesn’t square with the woman we meet here, 11 years before — when Parks, long an activist, investigated sexual assault for the NAACP. The organization sent her to the small town of Abbeville, Ala., to interview Taylor, a black wife and mother who had been gang-raped by six white men and defied the warnings of her gun-wielding attackers to stay silent.

Taylor reported the crime to the police, and she and her family spoke out about it unapologetically and furiously — even after two all-white grand juries declined to indict her attackers.

Recy Taylor Courtesy of The People's World/Daily Worker and Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

When Parks came to town to interview Taylor, the town’s sheriff barged into the victim’s home and ordered Parks to leave. Parks returned weeks later, only to be physically thrown out of the house by the sheriff.

Like her refusal to be moved on the bus, Buirski says, Parks insisted on her right to “bodily space.” Both actions were “about claiming your space in the world,” says the filmmaker, whose 2012 HBO documentary “The Loving Story,” about a mixed-race couple, was the inspiration for last year’s narrative drama “Loving.”

As the new documentary reveals, Parks was nearly raped by an older white man years before. “She was a baby sitter when it happened,” says Buirski. “It took her a few years before she developed this activist mentality and became dedicated to speaking out. She wrote what happened in an essay, and used it to teach activism to others.”

In that essay, Parks describes insisting to her would-be assailant that he doesn’t have the right to touch her, eventually persuading him to leave.

The film makes a clear connection between Parks and Taylor, two very different women who stood up to racial injustice. For Taylor, Buirski says, “Speaking up had nothing to do with activism, it had nothing to do with changing the world. “She just knew it was wrong … She knew enough about the legacy of rape in the Jim Crow South, that women were being attacked, and that it was a crime.”

Given the current outpouring of stories of sexual assault, Buirski says it’s remarkable that Taylor came forward when she did in the deep South, in an era when racism was law and lynching was common.

‘It took her a few years before she developed this activist mentality and became dedicated to speaking out.’

“Think of Recy Taylor speaking up in 1944, when her life, and her family’s safety, was at risk,” says Buirski, adding that she wasn’t trying to trivialize what women are going through today.

“Still, I do think a lot of black women are being left out of the conversation,” Buirski says. “They have been living with this for such a long time. Black women have always been in more serious danger.”

Nevertheless, a glaring similarity exists between Taylor’s attackers and the men Buirski calls “the Harvey Weinsteins of the world,” who never thought they’d be caught.

“There’s this sense of entitlement these men have,” she says, “whether they’re white supremacists or modern media moguls who felt like they could get away with anything.”

Taylor is 97, and although she suffers from dementia, Buirski says when she was interviewed briefly for the film two and a half years ago, she understood that Buirski was intent on telling her story.

Hidden Pattern Of Rape Helped Stir Civil Rights Movement

Recy Taylor was a 24-year-old mother when she was abducted at gunpoint and gang raped by a group of white men in Alabama in 1944. An activist named Rosa Parks was sent to investigate the attack. Taylor's case, and a number of others like hers, helped spark the civil rights movement. Danielle Lynn McGuire explores the story and the pattern of racist, sexual assaults on black women, in her book, "At the Dark End of the Street". In Tell Me More's weekly "Behind Closed Doors" conversation, host Michel Martin speaks with the author as well as with rape survivor, Recy Taylor.

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

My weekly, Can I Just Tell You commentary is just ahead.

But, first, we go behind closed doors, as we often do on Mondays, to talk about issues people usually keep private. And, today, as we wind up Black History Month and look ahead to women's history month, a story that in many ways was hiding in plain sight.

Now, many people know the story of Rosa Parks. It will have been told again this Black History Month. The meek and mild seamstress who was supposedly too tired to move to the back of the bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama and thereby sparked a movement. It turns out that the story is a good deal more complicated than that.

Rosa Parks was in fact a seasoned activist and investigator for the NAACP. She worked on documenting an epidemic of sexual violence aimed at black women and those stories have largely been forgotten until now.

A new book called "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" tells the story. The author of the book will join us in just a few minutes.

But before that, we are going to hear from Recy Taylor, whose story Rosa Parks first investigated back in 1944. She's at her home in Winter Haven, Florida. Ms. Taylor, thank you so much for joining us. I know this is hard to talk about, but if you could, I'd like it if you could tell us what happened back in 1944 when you were walking home that day.

Ms. RECY TAYLOR: Yes. I was - went to my friends house. Then she decided she wanted to go to church that night. I told her, yes, I would go. We went on to church and came back. A car running around outside of us, six young men jumped out with a gun and said that - you're the one that cut a white boy in Clarkton. And the police got us out looking for you. You get in the car and we will take you uptown to the police station.

And they got me in the car and carried me straight through the woods, but before they go where they was going, they blindfolded me. After they messed over and did what they were going to do me, say, we're going to take you back. We're going to put you out. But if you tell it, we're going to kill you.

So, first person I met was my daddy. And he said, where in the world you been? And I said, some white boys took me out and messed with me. And then the next person I met was Mr. Louis(ph), was the high sheriff. And he asked me, he said, well, Recy, what in the world happened to you tonight? And I told him. So Mr. Louis said, let's just go back to the store and said, when we get down to the store, I'm going to go and see if I can find them.

So we sat down at the store and when Mr. Louis got back, he had two boys. Mr. Louis asked me, say, do these look like two boys were with you tonight? I told him, yeah. Then he asked the boys, was y'all with this lady tonight? And the white boys said, yeah. Mr. Louis told them to get in the car and he left. We didn't have no other conversation said about the boys. He just left. And so daddy told me, well, I want to see somebody about carry my daughter out like that and treating her like that. Said, I'm going to see about that tomorrow.

But I don't know if my daddy talked to anybody about it the next day or not. He might've did, but I don't know.

MARTIN: Did anything ever happen to them for what they did to you?

Ms. TAYLOR: No ma'am, nothing.

MARTIN: After that time - and that's a terrible thing to happen to someone and I'm so sorry that that happened to you.

MARTIN: How do you think that it affected your life? Were you afraid to go out after that and things like that?

Ms. TAYLOR: I didn't go out at night. And then I got afraid of living right there after that happened too, 'cause I was afraid that maybe something else might happen.

MARTIN: Do you remember Rosa Parks?

MARTIN: How did she find you?

Ms. TAYLOR: They said she come to the house, my daddy's house. That's how she got in touch with me 'cause he's the one talked to her and then talked to me going to Montgomery 'cause he didn't know what might happen later.

MARTIN: I assumed that you found out from Professor McGuire, from Danielle McGuire, that this happened to many, many ladies like you. Did you know that?

Ms. TAYLOR: I heard it happened to many ladies, but I didn't know them, but I have heard.

Ms. TAYLOR: I have heard about many ladies got raped.

MARTIN: Do you feel better now that the world knows about this, or I guess you would feel better if you knew that those young men had been brought to justice for what they did. I assume that would make you feel better, but.

Ms. TAYLOR: Yes. That would make me feel better. I hated it happened to me like that, but it just happened to me and I couldn't help myself, and didn't the people's there, it seemed like they wasn't concerned about what happened to me. They didn't try to do nothing about it. I just get upset because I do my best to be nice to people because I don't want people to mistreat me and do me any kind of way and I have to live with it, 'cause I had to live with a lot with going through with this.

MARTIN: Yes, ma'am. I can imagine. I can only imagine.

TAYLOR: 'Cause I don't like to live like that. And I like to live happy, but I sometimes I don't even think about it, I go along. And then again, I get to thinking - I said, Lord, they could've killed me anyway. They was talking about killing me, but they could've killed me with their gun. They could've taken their gun and bust my brains out, but the Lord is just with me that night.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MARTIN: Once again, that was Recy Taylor. Rosa Parks investigated her story back in 1944.

And now we'll turn to Danielle McGuire, whose book "The Dark End of the Street" features Recy Taylor and many other women like her.

Danielle, how did you get started on this?

Professor DANIELLE MCGUIRE (Wayne State University): In 1998 I was listening to an NPR story about the Montgomery bus boycott, and Joe Azbell, the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, said something like: Gertrude Perkins has never been mentioned in history books but she had as much to do with the Montgomery bus boycott as anyone on Earth. And I stopped and I thought, Who on Earth is Gertrude Perkins? So I went to the archive and searched through the books and I didn't find Gertrude Perkins' name, and I went to the newspaper and I had to go through decades. I got to 1949 and found the story of Gertrude Perkins.

In 1949 she was walking home from a party and two white Montgomery police officers kidnapped her and raped her. When they were finished, they dropped her off and she went to see her minister, who was Reverend Solomon Seay, Sr. He was one of the more outspoken ministers in Montgomery at the time, and he launched a protest, and that protest lasted for at least two months and got her story on the front pages of the Montgomery Advertiser, which was the white newspaper at the time.

So I thought that was a fascinating story. And over the course of about 12 years of doing this research, I found that in the decade leading up to the bus boycott there were a series of rape cases, a series of sexual assaults against black women, and black women's testimonies helped launch little campaigns and sometimes big campaigns against what was happening. And the infrastructure that they built in protecting these black women who were victims was then used to launch the bus boycotts.

MARTIN: How does Rosa Parks connect to Recy Taylor?

Prof. MCGUIRE: Rosa Parks had family in Abbeville, Alabama, where Recy Taylor lived, and when she heard that story, the Montgomery NAACP dispatched her, because Rosa Parks was their best detective. And so she went to Abbeville and took notes on Taylor's story and listened to her testimony and then took Taylor's testimony back to Montgomery, where she and the city's most militant activists launched a campaign that the Chicago defender called the strongest movement for justice to be seen in a decade.

MARTIN: We just heard from Recy Taylor, as you heard, and she uses certain euphemisms to talk about what happened to her. Now, she's 91 years old now and we can certainly understand that. But for the sake of clarity, and I do apologize because this is hard to hear, but I'd like you to tell us exactly what happened to Recy Taylor.

Prof. MCGUIRE: Yeah. She was walking home from a church revival and a car full of white men kidnapped her off the street and drove her to the woods and they gang-raped her at gunpoint. She was raped at least six times, and when they were finished, they just dropped her off on the highway. Taylor managed to find the strength to walk home and she met her father and the local sheriff, who were out looking for her. She told them the details of the assault and told her husband and her family and then a few days later the Montgomery NAACP sent Rosa Parks. So Taylor struggled with this for years and years and in many ways is still struggling with it.

MARTIN: As she remembers it and as you recounted, the sheriff was already looking for her. But then he didn't do anything.

Prof. MCGUIRE: Right. He went looking for them, I think out of respect for the family, but once he realized it was his friend's son and his neighbor's son and men in the community, they weren't really going to pursue it any longer. I mean it might have been an attempt to make Recy Taylor and her family seem like they were doing something but they weren't really going to press charges or go through the details of a trial. I mean most of it was a farce. And this is sort of what prompted this major campaign around the country, you know, that there was no indictment, that these assailants were not even put on trial.

MARTIN: And then, of course, you tell the story of Gertrude Perkins. This was five years later when she was raped by two white police officers at gunpoint. She then reported it to her minister (unintelligible) and there was a protest about that. What happened in that case?

Prof. MCGUIRE: Gertrude Perkins was able to have a grand jury hearing and the county solicitor swore at her and accused her of lying, basically accused her of being a prostitute, you know, the stereotypical black Jezebel, and the protest that African-Americans mounted in the wake of this attack did force the two men to leave town. But I think African-Americans would've preferred an indictment and a really lengthy jail sentence.

MARTIN: Well, the other point that you make in the book is you contrast that to the whole notion of black men being accused of even speaking to a white woman. For example, the Emmett Till case, a 15-year-old boy who was brutally murdered because he was accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955.

MARTIN: And then I think you further report in your book that unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking white women sparked almost half of all the race riots in the United States before World War II.

Prof. MCGUIRE: It really sits at the volatile core of the modern civil rights struggle, and interracial sexual violence is really the point here. And so white men, I think, projected their own deviant behavior onto black men and accused black men of attacking white women when the truth was that white men were in the habit of attacking black women. So black men had to be very careful and they could be charged with eye rape. I mean there's a case in the 1950s of a black man who looked at a white girl from a distance of 75 feet and was literally charged with eye rape. I mean it was preposterous.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Danielle McGuire she's author of "At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance." It's a new history of the civil rights movement from Rosa Parks to the rise of black power. And she's talking about the role that sexual violence against black women played in the rise of the civil rights movement. And previously we heard from Recy Taylor, a woman whose story was told by Danielle McGuire in her book.

One of the powerful points that you make in the book is that part of the reason the Montgomery bus boycott was successful, part of the reason Rosa Parks was successful - she was already an organizer and there was a network in place supporting this. And I'm just wondering why you think we never heard these stories before.

Prof. MCGUIRE: I think that historians have always been focused on civil rights, voting rights, desegregation, access to public accommodations, and they've left out some of the larger things that people were worried about, particularly human rights. And they ignored some of these stories. I mean black women have been testifying about his crimes for years. They're on the front pages of black newspaper throughout the 1940s and the early 1950s, but mainstream historians never really picked it up, because I think they were really just focused on major leaders, major campaigns, and the very simplistic idea of civil rights.

MARTIN: Now, you're not African-American. You're white. And I'm interested in how you reacted to these stories.

Prof. MCGUIRE: They're heart-wrenching. And there were times when I was in the archive and I'd just go and do the stacks in the library and cry, because this isn't just black women's history, this is all of our history, this is American history. And our own silence about these continuing crimes and this crime of silence that we perpetuate by not talking about it, by not telling these stories I think makes us complicit. And I don't think we can move forward as a nation until we're honest about our history and honest about the kinds of things that happened, and that means we have to really embrace the brutal and the redemptive parts of our history, and this is certainly the brutal part of that history.

MARTIN: Danielle McGuire is the 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." She now teaches history at Wayne State University and she joined us from NPR member station WDET in Detroit.

Previously we heard from Recy Taylor. She is a survivor of gang rape in 1944. Her case motivated the NAACP to send Rosa Parks to investigate. And Recy Taylor was kind enough to join us from her home in Florida.

Danielle McGuire, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. MCGUIRE: You're welcome. Thank you.

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How We Got Here: A History of Sexual Assault Awareness Month

This year, NSVRC is celebrating its 17th year coordinating the national campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Yet this annual commemoration of SAAM during April to raise public awareness about sexual violence and educate communities on how to prevent it goes back decades. Not only does the history of SAAM date back long before NSVRC was founded, but activists and survivors advocating for change at the grassroots and community level have roots reaching as far back as the Civil Rights Era.

Roots of a Movement

Activism and mobilization to address sexual assault and violence against women dates as far back as the early 1900s. These efforts began to gain traction in the 1940s and 50s as other movements for social change grew and were championed by Women of Color including Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks. Prior to her role in the Montgomery bus boycotts, Rosa Parks advocated for justice for survivors of sexual assault and worked with the NAACP investigating cases of rape of Black women.

In 1944 Rosa Parks launched a nationwide campaign, the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor, to demand protections for Black women and accountability for Recy Taylor’s assailants. [1] Despite a confession from one of her attackers, the case never went to trial as an all-white male grand jury refused to indict the men involved. [2] Rosa Parks’ work was fundamental in developing her own tools as an activist, but also in propelling activism around sexual assault.

Growth in the 70s

Following the general trend of social activism in the 1970s, this decade saw significant growth for prevention and awareness of sexual violence across the country. Moving beyond awareness of the issue, the Bay Area Women Against Rape opened in 1971 as the nation’s first rape crisis center offering immediate victim services. [3] By 1976, there were over 400 rape crisis centers offering similar services and activities to prevent sexual violence at the local level. [4]

With this heightened awareness of sexual violence, state coalitions began to form, beginning with Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape in 1975. [5] Combined with public awareness of the impact and prevalence of sexual violence, these emerging organizations would help in the prevention of sexual violence.

Taking Action into the Streets

During this era, survivors became more emboldened to share their stories. In 1971, New York Radical Feminists holds the first ever speak-out on rape with around 300 women in attendance. [6] The first Take Back the Night event occurred in 1978 in San Francisco, with over 5,000 participants. This event has continued today with local communities and college campuses hosting events all around the country. [7]

The Rape Crisis Council for the Lehigh Valley holds an event in 1980.

Legislative Changes

While there was larger societal recognition of sexual assault in the seventies and eighties, there were few legal protections for victims. That’s why survivors, advocates, and state coalitions mobilized around the creation and implementation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1993. This bill was the first national law requiring law enforcement to treat gender violence as a crime rather than a private family matter. VAWA was also designed to strengthen legal protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence as well as expand services to survivors and their children. [8] Finally, victims had the legal right to the protections and services that they needed.

Rally for Victim's Bill of Rights.

VAWA demonstrated the need for a nationally coordinated effort to advocate for sexual violence prevention. So, it was a natural next step when the National Sexual Violence Resource Center was established in 2000 by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Center for Disease Control to provide leadership in preventing and responding to sexual violence through collaboration, sharing and creating resources and promoting research. [9] In 2001, the NSVRC coordinated the first formally recognized national Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign, which it still facilitates today.

The opening of NSVRC in 2000, one year before the first formal SAAM campaign.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

The Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign continued to grow under NSVRC. In 2005, the campaign shifted focus to prevention of sexual violence and the first toolkits were sent out to coalitions and rape crisis centers across the country. Awareness for the campaign culminated in 2009 when Barack Obama was the first president to officially proclaim April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month Kits from 1999 (left) and 2003 (right).

To increase involvement with SAAM, the campaign became bilingual in 2010, offering materials and resources for Spanish speakers. Since 2010, NSVRC has provided materials in Spanish, and this year is the first campaign specifically designed for the Spanish-speaking community.

The success of the current Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign would not have been possible without the work of prior activists. In moving forward, we must continue to recognize the roles of past leaders as we seek to change the culture around sexual violence.

[1] McGuire, D. (2015, December 11). More Than A Seat On The Bus. Retrieve, from

[2] Chan, S. (2017, December 29). Recy Taylor, Who Fought for Justice After a 1944 Rape, Dies at 97. Retrieved from

[3] Davis, J. T. (Spring/Summer 2005). The Grassroots Beginnings of the Victims’ Rights Movement. National Crime Victim Law Institute,6-7.

[4] National Coalition Against Sexual Assault. (n.d.). Ten years: 1072-1982: Working against sexual assault.

[5] Nardella, E., Nodgaard, C., Baily, J., Rumburg, D., & Sunday, D. (2006). Taking back the night: The story of Pennsylvanias anti-sexual violence movement. Enola, PA: PCAR.

[6] Bevacqua, M. (2000). Rape on the public agenda: Feminism and the politics of sexual assault. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

[7] Nardella, E., Nodgaard, C., Baily, J., Rumburg, D., & Sunday, D. (2006). Taking back the night: The story of Pennsylvanias anti-sexual violence movement. Enola, PA: PCAR.

[8] Heldman, C., & Brown, B. (2014, August 08). A Brief History of Sexual Violence Activism in the U.S. Retrieved from

[9] Nardella, E., Nodgaard, C., Baily, J., Rumburg, D., & Sunday, D. (2006). Taking back the night: The story of Pennsylvanias anti-sexual violence movement. Enola, PA: PCAR.

Related stories

Parks resisted. She wrote: “I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never.”

In 1944, obtaining justice for a Black woman in the segregated South was almost impossible but that didn’t discourage Parks from traveling to Abbeville, Alabama, to investigate a gang rape incident that reached the office of the NAACP in Montgomery.

Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old Black mother, was walking home from church in her small Alabama town with her friend Fannie Daniel on the evening of September 3, 1944, when a car carrying seven young White men pulled up. The men accused Taylor of attacking a White boy in a neighboring town before forcing her into the car, claiming they were taking her to the sheriff. They drove her into “a grove of pine trees, where, one by one, six men brutally raped her, threatening to cut her throat if she cried out,” according to state records.

They then threatened to kill her if she reported the crime. But once Taylor was found by her father struggling to make her way home, she told him what had happened and they both went to see the local county sheriff, Lewey Corbitt. Corbitt drove her to a store to see if they could find any of the men involved in the dastardly act. As a matter of fact, two of her rapists were found. It is documented that one of the assailants, Hugo Wilson, confessed to the rape and named six others involved: Dillard York Billy Howerton Herbert Lovett Luther Lee Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble. Yet, none of them was arrested.

When the Montgomery office of the NAACP got wind of the news of Taylor’s assault, they decided to send one of their best investigators, Parks, to look into the case. Parks traveled to Taylor’s home in Abbeville, where she began interviewing the married mother. During the interview, the local sheriff, Corbitt, drove past Taylor’s house several times before eventually entering the house and demanding Parks leave. “I don’t want any troublemakers here in Abbeville,” he said. “If you don’t go, I’ll lock you up.”

Parks came back to Montgomery, where she launched the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor. Thanks to the Committee, the Recy Taylor case made headlines across the country by October 1944. Still, on October 9, 1944, a grand jury refused to indict the men. Earlier, reports said the suspects’ lawyer offered $600 to Willie Guy Taylor, Recy’s husband, to silence his wife.

Parks, furious at the way the case was being handled, called on people to write protest letters to then-Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks. She also wrote a letter to the governor: “As a citizen of Alabama, I urge you to use your high office to reconvene the Henry County Grand Jury at the earliest possible moment.”

“Alabamians are depending upon you to see that all obstacles, which are preventing justice in this case, be removed. I know that you will not fail to let the people of Alabama know that there is equal justice for all of our citizens,” she wrote.

Parks got a response from the governor, who asked that the case is looked at again. But on February 14, 1945, a grand jury refused to indict the suspects — for a second time. In 2010, Taylor’s case and Parks’ role in it aroused media interest again following the release of the book, At the Dark End of the Street, by Danielle L. McGuire. The following year, Alabama lawmakers finally apologized to Taylor. “That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama,” a resolution approved by the Alabama House of Representatives read. “That we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.”

Parks passed away in 2005. Taylor in her final days lived in a Florida nursing home. She died on December 28, 2017, at age 97.

“The Rape of Recy Taylor”: How Rosa Parks Helped a Sharecropper Report Her Assault & Seek Justice

A new film looks at the 1944 gang rape of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper. Following the rape, she refused to be silenced and spoke up with help from the NAACP’s chief rape investigator Rosa Parks. When Parks went to interview Taylor, the local sheriff kept driving by the house and eventually burst in, threatening Parks with arrest if she didn’t leave town. Parks left and then launched the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, triggering a movement to seek justice 11 years before Parks became a civil rights hero for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, launching the Montgomery bus boycott. We speak with the film’s director, Nancy Buirski, and with Yale historian Crystal Feimster, author of “Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching.”

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a new film that looks at what happened in 1944 when a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper was gang-raped in Alabama and refused to be silenced. This is a clip from the trailer of the documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor.

RECY TAYLOR : I saw the car pull up behind me. Some white boys. I mean, they didn’t say nothing about what they were going to do to me. They put me in the car, then went blindfold me. I was begging them to leave me alone, don’t shoot me. I’ve got to go home to see about my baby. They wouldn’t let me go. I can’t help but tell the truth, what they done to me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Recy Taylor herself, describing what happened the night six white boys abducted and brutally raped her as she walked home from a church service in Abbeville, Alabama. After the men raped Taylor, they left her on the side of a deserted road, where she was found by her father.

This is another clip from the film The Rape of Recy Taylor. This starts with her brother, Robert Corbitt, followed by her sister, Alma Daniels. They explain what happened to Recy Taylor the night she was raped.

ALMA DANIELS : What they did to her—and, you know, my sister didn’t have any more kids after that and never got pregnant after that. And they didn’t only just have sex with her. After they got through mutilating her, they played in her body.

ROBERT CORBITT : I don’t know if she was feeling pain or what. That was—that was after they kept her about four or five hours down in the woods. Seven guys, one night. They said they wanted her to act just like she was going to be with her husband.

AMY GOODMAN : The boys had warned Taylor repeatedly that they would kill her if she spoke out. But despite the threats, Recy Taylor identified her rapists, though few women spoke up, in fear for their lives. In fact, the rape of black women by white men was so common in Jim Crow South that the NAACP had a chief rape investigator. That person was none other than Rosa Parks. When Rosa Parks went to interview Recy Taylor—we’re talking 11 years before the Montgomery bus boycott—the local sheriff kept driving by the house and eventually burst in, threatening Rosa Parks with arrest if she didn’t leave town. Parks left and then launched the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, triggering a movement to seek justice—again, 11 years before Rosa Parks became that civil rights hero for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, launching the Montgomery bus boycott.

For more, we’re joined by Nancy Buirski, the producer and director of The Rape of Recy Taylor, and we’re joined by Professor Crystal Feimster. She’s an associate professor of African American studies at Yale University, interviewed in the film, and author of the book Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Nancy Buirski, let’s begin with you, why you took on this film. What an amazing moment for it to be shown, in the midst of the #MeToo movement. And, again, amplify this story of Recy Taylor and what ultimately happened to her.

NANCY BUIRSKI : You know, Recy Taylor is amazingly courageous for speaking up. As you mentioned, very few women did that. They were afraid for their lives. Their families would be threatened, and their friends’ livelihoods would be threatened. So, what she did was extraordinary. And, you know, we made this film before this #MeToo movement. We had no idea that this would all erupt. But now, as I look back on it, I realize that Recy Taylor’s story is the first link in a long chain. It may—not even the first link. It really goes back to slavery. But it is a very pivotal link in a chain that goes right through the civil rights movement, right up through Black Power, and obviously is resolved today.

AMY GOODMAN : And Recy Taylor, what happened? What was—what were the investigations? You have Rosa Parks, this amazing—


AMY GOODMAN : —story of Rosa Parks going to Abbeville. This is what motivated Rosa Parks, what propelled her.

NANCY BUIRSKI : You know, they had a grand jury investigation soon after the rape. I think that took place in October. The rape took place in September. She did not get any justice. You know, she identified her rapists, but, to no one’s surprise, these guys were not indicted. And that’s when Rosa Parks steps in and says, “We have to put more pressure on the governor. We have to get some kind of justice.” So she comes to Abbeville. She interviews Recy Taylor. She gets kicked out of the—Abbeville by the sheriff. She comes back. She interviews her again. And she takes her up to Montgomery, where she forms this Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. And what this—what this does, basically, is it triggers the black newspapers to write about this story. And black newspapers were the only newspapers that were writing these stories in those days. The white newspapers, they didn’t suppress it, they just ignored it. It wasn’t important.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the film highlights the role of the black press, that it played in documenting and publicizing what happened to Recy Taylor. This clip begins with journalist and activist Esther Cooper Jackson, followed by Danielle McGuire. McGuire is the author of At the Dark End of the Street, the book that inspired the film.

ESTHER COOPER JACKSON : The only place we really were able to publish articles about Recy and others was through The Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Amsterdam News, the Baltimore, etc.—through the black press.

DANIELLE McGUIRE: It’s part of the kind of infrastructure of injustice, where the white press ignores these kinds of crimes, and then—and then there’s no record of them happening, which gives judges and juries plausible deniability of any knowledge, and maybe this is a rumor. You know, it’s not even in the newspaper. And that’s why it’s so important that the black press publishes these stories.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was historian Danielle McGuire. We’re also joined by Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American studies at Yale University, author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. Professor Feimster, could you talk about the role of the African-American press, papers like The Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, that were really exposing a lot of what was happening in the Jim Crow South, because they were in the North and were able to do that?

CRYSTAL FEIMSTER : Right. The African-American press, of course, played a huge role in exposing white violence, particularly against African-American women and men throughout the Jim Crow South. Most often those stories were—stories about rape were told through the stories about lynching, right? And that’s what my work has focused on, that sort of longer history. And we can’t think about the press and not think about Frederick Douglass’s newspaper or Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign and how black folks have mobilized the press. I mean, we can think about, in this current moment, how folks mobilize social media as an outlet, but, yes, African Americans in the black press were key, not just to Recy’s case, but to all the work that black organizations, like the NAACP , were doing in the early 20th century. So, yes.

AMY GOODMAN : Can you talk about what happened to her, what happened to Recy Taylor, the astonishing fearlessness? After she’s raped, and they tell her, “We will kill you unless you promise not to say a word,” she immediately spoke out. And talk about the investigations that that led to over the decades. This story haunted Alabama for decades. And then what happened in 2011 in the Alabama state Legislature?

CRYSTAL FEIMSTER : Right. So, much of what we know about Recy Taylor and her case comes from Danielle McGuire’s research for The Dark End of the Street and also from what Robert Corbitt tells us, what Recy continues to tell us and continues to testify about even today. And we get to hear her voice in Nancy’s beautiful film.

But we know that Recy comes home. We know that she tells her husband, her father what happens to her. She goes before two grand juries—right?—to testify and identify the young boys who gang-raped her that night. As we know, Esther Cooper comes in and does an investigation. There’s a letter-writing campaign, right? There are unions that organize. As we’ve already mentioned, the black press picks up the story. And it’s there that the story moves. It becomes not just a national story, but an international story, right? And the campaign for Recy continues, right?

But, ultimately, after those two grand juries refused to indict on behalf of Recy’s case, as Danielle McGuire’s work reveals, is that the movement moves on, in some ways. And that’s not to say that they’re no longer invested in—investigating rape cases of black women, but the cases keep coming. They keep—there are new cases every day of black women being assaulted by white men. And so they take on new cases, and they try to push those cases forward.

And Recy, you know, goes back to her life and her family and continues to live, but has a hard life. We know that her daughter dies in a tragic car accident. We know that her marriage falls apart. But she continues to live, to live her life, and to speak about—speak out about what happened to her. She never shies away from that story or backs down. And I think she says it eloquently in the film, that she had to speak the truth about what happened to her. And just because there wasn’t justice in the case, she wasn’t silenced. And many women who spoke up after her refused to be silenced. I think there is a long tradition of black women speaking to sexual assault and sexual violence, even when justice isn’t an option.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Nancy Buirski, in the film, you also include a letter from Rosa Parks, where she talks about an attempted rape against her by someone in 1931, much earlier.

NANCY BUIRSKI : Correct. She is a nanny in a white home. And, of course, this happened frequently to nannies, where, you know, the caretaker—I mean, she was the caretaker. So she is approached by a person in the neighborhood, and she persuades him not to rape her. This is what’s extraordinary. She actually talks him out of it. And that letter reflects her ideology and what she basically says to him.

AMY GOODMAN : Let’s go to that letter.


AMY GOODMAN : Rosa Parks herself. The man, whom she called “Mr. Charlie,” had come into the house where she worked while the family was out for the evening. He has a drink, puts his hand on her waist, propositions her. This is the film.

ROSA PARKS : [read by Cynthia Erivo] I knew that no matter what happened, I would never yield to this white man’s bestiality. I was ready and willing to die. But give any consent, never.

AMY GOODMAN : So that’s Parks, who goes on to write, “If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body, he was welcome but he would have to kill me first.”

NANCY BUIRSKI : You know, it’s extraordinary when you think that even she didn’t speak up immediately. This letter is written years after that incident took place. And she used it as an essay, to convey what had happened to her to many more people, and, ideally, empower other people to speak up finally. But that’s an example, to me, of how difficult it was to speak up in those days. One of the reasons that we know so little about this entire, what I consider an epic history is that the few women who spoke up, if they did speak up, it was often not reported. We didn’t find out about it.

You know, when lynching took place in the Deep South, that was meant to be visible. It was a tool of terrorism, and it was meant to tell people where their place was—black—African Americans. But women weren’t treated the same way. They were raped also as a tool of terrorism, but it was also a rite of passage for a lot of these guys. And, I mean, they had been brought up with a mentality that you have a right to do this, you have a right to take advantage of a black woman’s body. And so, not only did the women not speak up, but neither did their husbands, because if their husbands fought back, they’d be lynched.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to go to another—

CRYSTAL FEIMSTER : I also think—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, I’m sorry, go ahead.

CRYSTAL FEIMSTER : No, I was going to say that I also think that, you know, what Rosa Parks’ letter reveals and, I think, what the film reveals and the sort of longer history on sexual violence against black women reveals is that while black women may not have had a public platform in which to speak out and to have an audience, that black women resisted sexual assault. And the way that they spoke out often was in their behavior, in the way that they fought back. And we see that resilience and that outspokenness in Rosa Parks’ words to Mr. Charlie, right?

And I think that that’s where historians find a wealth of sources—right?—around how black women protested, because they didn’t have traditional outlets—the white press, right?—or an audience that was favorable or interested in sexual assault and violence against black women. They had to find alternative ways to fight back and to speak back. And sometimes that was through the way that they resisted the violence. And sometimes it was taking those cases to the local sheriff, and oftentime with little or no result, right?

So, I think there may be a way to kind of think about the sort of spectrum in which—in ways that women do speak out, even though it doesn’t sort of fit how we think women should be speaking out in kind of this #MeToo moment, because I think we all know that these things happen—right?—and that there is a silence, but there is a way that that silence often speaks volumes. So I think it’s important. And I think that both Danielle and Nancy’s work kind of reveals the kind of diverse ways in which women speak out in protest.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nancy, what kind of pushback did you get when you went to the Alabama town where this all occurred to try to interview people about it, who were—people who were still alive?

NANCY BUIRSKI : We tried to interview many more people who end up in the—than who you see in the film. There were white businessmen that we wanted to speak with, and they shut us out, basically. You see in the film a few relatives of the rapists, who speak to us. And frankly, I was surprised they did. I think that, on some level, they’re in some kind of denial, because they use euphemisms to talk about what their brothers had done. So I’m not sure they quite—either they don’t accept what they did, or they don’t how to talk about it.

But in terms of the African Americans, they were more than happy to speak. And I just want to draw attention to the incredible courage of Robert Corbitt, the brother of Recy Taylor, who has made it his mission to expose this story even today.

AMY GOODMAN : And what happened in Alabama Legislature in 2011?

NANCY BUIRSKI : They issue an apology. And—

AMY GOODMAN : That’s it?

NANCY BUIRSKI : That’s it. And, you know, the Corbitt family, Corbitt and Taylors, they believe that’s a little too little, too late, but they will accept it. I mean, there’s a tremendous amount of dignity in that family. And they will continue speaking of this. They will continue sending this message that this kind of thing should not happen. One of the things that’s really important to know is that no one felt any shame. Recy Taylor felt no shame. There was no reason to. She knew there was a legacy to this kind of behavior.

AMY GOODMAN : And she is alive today, Recy Taylor in Alabama.

NANCY BUIRSKI : And she is alive today. She’s still here.

AMY GOODMAN : I want to thank Nancy Buirski, director and producer of The Rape of Recy Taylor, and Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American studies at Yale University, author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching.

And we’ll end again on the headline that came out this week: Tarana Burke, the woman who founded the #MeToo movement, will be ringing in the new year in New York. She’ll be there at midnight as a woman who has spoken out.


State Current local observances
California The holiday was first observed on January 5, 2000 and every year thereafter, created by an act of the California legislature. [5]
Missouri Rosa Parks Day made official February 4, 2015 by proclamation by Governor Jay Nixon. [6]
Ohio Holiday is observed on December 1, the day Rosa Parks was arrested. [5]
Oregon Holiday is observed on December 1, the day Rosa Parks was arrested. [5]

Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) was a seamstress by profession she was also the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. Twelve years before her history-making arrest, Parks was stopped from boarding a city bus by driver James F. Blake, who ordered her to board at the back door and then drove off without her. Parks vowed never again to ride a bus driven by Blake. As a member of the NAACP, Parks was an investigator assigned to cases of sexual assault. In 1945, she was sent to Abbeville, Alabama, to investigate the gang rape of Recy Taylor. The protest that arose around the Taylor case was the first instance of a nationwide civil rights protest, and it laid the groundwork for the Montgomery bus boycott. [7]

In 1955, Parks completed a course in "Race Relations" at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee where nonviolent civil disobedience had been discussed as a tactic. On December 1, 1955, Parks was sitting in the frontmost row for black people. When a Caucasian man boarded the bus, the bus driver told everyone in her row to move back. At that moment, Parks realized that she was again on a bus driven by Blake. While all of the other black people in her row complied, Parks refused, and was arrested [8] for failing to obey the driver's seat assignments, as city ordinances did not explicitly mandate segregation but did give the bus driver authority to assign seats. Found guilty on December 5, [9] Parks was fined $10 plus a court cost of $4, [10] but she appealed.

Rosa Parks' action gained notoriety leading to the Montgomery bus boycott, which was a seminal event in the civil rights movement, and was a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama. The campaign lasted from December 1, 1955 — when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person — to December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect, and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional. [11] Many important figures in the civil rights movement took part in the boycott, including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. The 381-day boycott almost bankrupted the bus company and effectively made segregation in buses unconstitutional and illegal.


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Black women, the forgotten survivors of sexual assault

Recy Taylor was walking home from a church meeting in Abbeville, Alabama with two other churchgoers when she was terrorized by seven white men in a green Chevrolet truck, snatched by them, taken to a secluded area and assaulted and raped, being told to “act like you do, with your husband or I’ll cut your damn throat.” (as told by Recy Taylor in McGuire, 2010) According to McGuire (2010), the NAACP sent their best investigator, Rosa Parks, to what was her father’s hometown to explore what happened. Her efforts resulted in the formation of the Committee for Equal Justice, which later became known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. In fact, “the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement, was in many ways the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect [B]lack women, like Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.” (McGuire, 2010 digital location 186). The social movement widely described as the Civil Rights Movement, emerged out of black women demanding control over their bodies and lives, black men being killed for protecting black women, or ultimately, the fight for black women’s bodies and agency and against white supremacist rape and assault.

Eight decades later, black women still need protection from sexual violence, despite the Civil Rights Movement. According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community (PDF, 772KB):

  • For every black woman who reports rape, at least 15 black women do not report.
  • One in four black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
  • One in five black women are survivors of rape.
  • Thirty-five percent of black women experienced some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime.
  • Forty to sixty percent of black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18.
  • Seventeen percent of black women experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
  • More than 20 percent of black women are raped during their lifetimes — a higher share than among women overall.
  • Black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than their white counterparts. And, more than 9 in 10 black female victims knew their killers.
  • Black women also experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse — including humiliation, insults, name-calling and coercive control — than do women over all.

The struggle to protect black girls and women remains. Unfortunately, black women remain vulnerable to sexual violence due to what we call intersectionality, the systematic oppression black women experience based upon their race and gender. These institutionalized practices and policies prevent their equitable enforcement. Because of what is known as the “Strong Black Woman” archetype (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2009), the dangerous single story told about black women that uplifts their strength, perseverance and survival and minimizes their emotional well-being, tenderness and humanity, black women are rarely protected. In fact, black women are rarely protected while:

  • Playing video games with their nephew — Atatiana Koquice Jefferson, a 28-year-old black American woman, was shot and killed in her home by a white American police officer in Fort Worth, Texas, while she played video games with her nephew #SayHerName.
  • Hanging out with friends at a park — Rekia Boyd was shot in the back of the head and killed by Dante Servin, an off-duty Chicago detective.
  • Knocking on a door to seek help after a car crash — Renisha McBride walked to a neighborhood in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, where she knocked on the door of a house owned by Theodore Wafer who shot her with a shotgun suspecting a break-in #SayHerName.
  • Being served a warrant and holding a toddler — Korryn Gaines was shot and killed while holding her son by a SWAT team in Baltimore County, Maryland, where they were serving her a warrant for a traffic violation #SayHerName.
  • Giving birth to a child — Kira Johnson experienced severe medical negligence during her routine C-section causing massive internal bleeding and her eventual death in Los Angeles, California #BlackMamasMatter (PDF, 569KB), representing the high rate of maternal mortality among black women, where black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers.
  • Sitting on the floor with their child in a crowded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program office — Jazmine Headley’s one year old was violently separated from their child by four police officers and arrested by police because of her encounter with a security guard and not having a place to sit.
  • Drinking milk from a school cafeteria — An eleven year old girl with special needs was body slammed by a cop simply for taking milk from the cafeteria.
  • Unfortunately, so many more experiences of violence affecting black women with disabilities, queer and trans black women, as well as lesbian and bisexual black women.

While not directly related to sexual violence, these stories are emblematic of the daily bias and institutionalized gendered racism black women experience when dealing with various systems such as criminal justice, education and health care. Age or vulnerability doesn’t protect us either. Many people are working hard to change these inequities by developing effective policies and practices. We already have policies to address sexual violence such as the Violence Against Women Act, but partisan politics are currently preventing its reauthorization. What we don’t have is a critical mass willing to enforce these policies, center black women in the narrative, and act. But change can start with you. Here’s what you can do:

  • Become an informed ally. Learn more about the relationship between colonialism and sexual violence. Consider reading more books by black women scholars who are writing about the daily lived experiences of black women, including sexual violence. #CiteBlackWomen is a good start.
  • Center black women in your advocacy. Contact your elected officials and share this data. Ask them what they are doing specifically to improve the sexual violence experienced by black women. It may be helpful to explain how institutions contribute to gendered racism. Ask them to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
  • Support organizations that work on behalf of black women in your area. This may require you doing some research, talking with black women and allowing them to tell you what they need.

Black women should not be the forgotten survivors of sexual violence. The year is 2020. Maybe this will start another movement that will result in sustainable change for black women experiencing sexual violence.

Watch the video: The Rosa Parks Song . Troublesome Twentieth Century. Horrible Histories


  1. Sankalp

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  3. Ommar

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  5. Darwish

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  6. Ellard

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  7. Prometheus

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