Today marks 101 years since civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was born. By now, many people have learned to look beyond the version of Parks we learned about in elementary school–a brave but mild-mannered woman who just wouldn’t take it anymore. As organizers know, these movements don’t just spring up spontaneously but are the product of planning, strategizing and hard work.
But I imagine few people know the deeper story about Rosa Parks’ early organizing against rape and exploitation of black women, which sparks me to once again recommend Danielle McGuire’s excellent book At the Dark End of the Street:
In this groundbreaking and important book, Danielle McGuire writes about the rape in 1944 of a twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, Recy Taylor, who strolled toward home after an evening of singing and praying at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama. Seven white men, armed with knives and shotguns, ordered the young woman into their green Chevrolet, raped her, and left her for dead. The president of the local NAACP branch office sent his best investigator and organizer to Abbeville. Her name was Rosa Parks. In taking on this case, Parks launched a movement that ultimately changed the world.
The author gives us the never-before-told history of how the civil rights movement began; how it was in part started in protest against the ritualistic rape of black women by white men who used economic intimidation, sexual violence, and terror to derail the freedom movement; and how those forces persisted unpunished throughout the Jim Crow era when white men assaulted black women to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy. Black women’s protests against sexual assault and interracial rape fueled civil rights campaigns throughout the South that began during World War II and went through to the Black Power movement. The Montgomery bus boycott was the baptism, not the birth, of that struggle.
Organizing against sexual assault can be harrowing in our current times when rape culture is still dominant, so it’s mind-boggling to think of the obstacles Parks and her fellow organizers faced seeking justice for black women in the South in the 1940s. That organizing was critical in feeding into the larger civil rights movement, and one more reason to honor Rosa Parks as a badass, inspiring organizer.