A forgotten battleground: Women’s bodies and the civil rights movement

By — September 13, 2012

Every few years, my consistently intrepid mother would experience terrifying nightmares. When I was 7, I asked her to tell me what monster was frightening her so much that she stirred and let out petrifying screams in her sleep.

“Mom, it’s just pretend,” I said. “It’s only a dream.” As her breathing decelerated, and she realized she was safe in her bed, my mother turned to me and said: “ Baby, it was real. I wish it were only a dream. One day I’ll tell you about the men who kicked me in my stomach.”

Soon after, my mother explained to me what was keeping her from sleeping soundly. I learned that she had been beaten, jailed more than a dozen times, chased by dogs, and hosed down by South Carolina police during the civil rights movement.

Women at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. Routine acts of aggression against women civil rights protesters were seldom met with accountability.

While I grew up with the knowledge that my family held deep roots in civil rights activism, my mother’s stories about the origins of her horrific dreams chilled my bones.

Among many other accounts, she spoke about being kicked repeatedly in the area surrounding her reproductive organs by white men for sitting at a lunch counter.

Mom recalled the trauma of surviving 1968’s Orangeburg Massacre in her South Carolina college community. That February day, police opened fire on a crowd of people protesting segregation, killing three and injuring 28 people—one of whom was a pregnant woman who miscarried as a result of the brutality.

According to my mother, black women’s bodies were often battlegrounds for opponents of civil rights. She specified that while all demonstrators were in danger of being attacked, women were often specifically targeted. She explained that the thugs (civilians and so-called law enforcement officers) who battered her and her female counterparts often exacerbated their attacks to threaten black women’s dignity, and to spark the patriarchal ire of male protesters.

She implied that these white men used violence against black women as a tool to buttress their notions of racial and gender superiority, to flaunt control, and to disrupt the movement’s progress through harassment and intimidation. Moreover, she insisted that routine acts of aggression were seldom met with accountability, which led to a cavalier perpetuation of this form of terror.

Through my mother’s accounts and the stories my father shared about his cousin Joan Little, who bravely defended herself and slayed a white jailer who tried to rape her, I learned about the prevalence of violence against black women leading up to and during the civil rights movement.

While my mother’s experiences and Little’s obviously differ due to the fact that my mother was not sexually assaulted, the common threads are that they both were victims of police cruelty and unchecked systemic violence fueled by a virulently racist and sexist culture.

Through family stories and Danielle L. McGuire’s groundbreaking text 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, I strengthened my knowledge about the significance of bearing witness and documenting stories about violence against African American women.  

McGuire’s book details how the “ritualistic rape and intimidation” of black women including Recy Taylor, Betty Jean Owens, and Joan Little helped spark the civil rights movement by mobilizing black communities, giving much-needed context to how African American anti-rape activists and organizers such as Rosa Parks and Ida B. Wells inspired their communities to stand up for black women’s bodily integrity.  

I discovered At The Dark End of the Street when I learned that Gloria Steinem was inspired to start WMC’s Women Under Siege as a result of its findings and Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel’s anthology Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust.

WMC’s Women Under Siege was created in order to document how sexualized violence is used in conflict with the understanding that recording and analyzing sexualized violence may enable us to build greater awareness about the causes of gender violence in conflict and prevent further atrocities.  

In an interview with the project’s director, Lauren Wolfe, Steinem spoke about the intrinsic link between sexualized violence during the civil rights movement and the Holocaust, and present-day sexualized violence in conflict. She said: "Documenting the problem allows individual victims to know they’re not alone or at fault, and allows the institutions of society to create remedies, from laws to education. Naming sexualized violence as a weapon of war makes it visible and subject to prosecution. … By making clear that sexualized violence is political and public, it breaches that wall. It admits that sexualized violence can be changed."

Today, Steinem’s assertion about the significance of reporting, recording, and bearing witness to sexualized violence deeply resonates as targeted attacks against women and girls are being utilized to assert cultural, sexual, and political domination in conflict zones worldwide from Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Disturbingly, decades after the civil rights era, violence against women prevails in the United States as some politicians perpetuate rape culture by undermining the prevalence and severity of sexualized violence with shaming and stigmatizing pseudo-distinctions like “legitimate” and “forcible” rape.

While we have made some progress since the civil rights movement, it is clear that stories about women of color, sexualized violence, and organized resistance are still largely absent from our collective consciousness. This is why it is imperative that we unearth and report stories about sexualized violence to reverse the erasure that has occurred as a result of media, policy makers, and law enforcement institutions leaving narratives about violence against women largely ignored or shrouded in silence.

No one should have to experience what my mother did for the sake of justice.