Hidden Pattern Of Rape Helped Stir Civil Rights Movement
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
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.
Ms. TAYLOR: It sure is.
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?
Ms. TAYLOR: Yes, ma'am.
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.
MARTIN: You 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.
Prof. MCGUIRE: Right.
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.