It is an incredible honor to win this award since the Southern Regional Council and Lillian Smith, have had such an enormous impact on my growth as a citizen and my evolution as an historian. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that without both of them, I’m not sure I would have written this book. And I suppose that’s a really strange thing to say for a white northerner who was born decades after the civil rights movement.
Let me explain.
I was studying African American history at the University of Wisconsin in 1998 when I heard this wonderful show about the civil rights movement on NPR. I was completely transfixed by the vivid stories of the civil rights movement that the Southern Regional Council had captured in their program, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Anyway, that day’s episode was about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. But it was different from anything I’d ever heard before.
Like most people educated in our public school system, I believed that Rosa Parks started the boycott partly because her feet were tired.
But Joe Azbell, the former editor of the Montgomery Advertiser talked about Gertrude Perkins. “Gertrude Perkins is never mentioned in the history books,” Azbell said, “but she had as much to do with the bus boycott as anyone on earth.”
Azbell’s statement confused me. Who was Gertrude Perkins? And what on earth did she have to do with the bus boycott?
That question took me about twelve years to answer fully. And the result is, of course, this book.
The short answer, though, is that in 1949, two white Montgomery police officers kidnapped Perkins, drove her outside town and raped her. Somehow she found the courage to report the crime to the police—perhaps the same men who assaulted her.
As a result of her bold testimony, African Americans in Montgomery rallied to her defense. NAACP activists, labor leaders and ministers formed an umbrella organization called the “Citizens Committee for Gertrude Perkins” and demanded an investigation and trial.
Their public protests lasted for over two months. As a result, they exposed the longstanding practice of white police officers sexually assaulting black women, forced a grand jury hearing and brought the city’s disparate black ministers together for the first time.
So what does this have to do with the 1955 bus boycott?
The 1955 boycott, often portrayed as the opening scene in the civil rights drama, was in many was the last act of the Montgomery movement. In fact, the bus boycott was the logical outgrowth of a decade of black women’s activism and a history of gendered political appeals to protect black women, like Gertrude Perkins, from sexualized violence and rape.
The kidnapping and rape of Gertrude Perkins was hardly unusual in the segregated South. From slavery through the better part of the 20th century, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity and often impunity.
· They lured black women and girls away from home with promises of work and better wages.
· They attacked them on the job.
· They abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work or church.
· And they sexually humiliated them and assaulted them on buses and streetcars and in other public spaces.
This was the pattern throughout the South during the 1940s and 50s and underscored the limits of southern justice.
Lillian Smith wrote about this pattern, though she never spoke explicitly about rape, in her courageous book, Killers of the Dream. In it, she talks about the menace of white men’s “backyard temptations” and argues that while “there are no available statistics on the frequency or range of biracial sex activities in the South…this everyone knows: whenever, wherever race relations are discussed in the United States, sex moves arm in arm with the concept of segregation.”
In Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith explored the consequences of what she called the “race, sex, sin” spiral and how interracial sex—both coerced and consensual--sat at the center of segregation. Though that book, I think, is more of an exploration about the psychology of segregation and white supremacy, reading it made me think about sex as a lens through which I could view white supremacy in a different way. And I particularly interested in the subject of white men’s “backyard temptations”—that is, black women.
What I learned was that African American women had a lot to say about this at the time; they didn’t always keep their stories secret.
From the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs to Ida B. Wells to Fannie Lou Hamer’s stark testimony about a forced hysterectomy and sexualized beating in 1963, black women reclaimed their humanity by organizing public protests and testifying about their brutal assaults. Their testimonies often led to larger campaigns for civil and human rights.
Even the most oft-told and illustrious civil rights struggles—like the Montgomery bus boycott, the Selma struggle and the 1964 Freedom Summer—often had roots in organized resistance to sexualized racial violence and gendered political appeals to protect black womanhood.
Essentially, At the Dark End of the Street argues that rape and resistance to rape sits at the center of the modern civil rights movement. And that movement looks really different when you include black women’s resistance to racialized sexual violence.
For example, Rosa Parks is often characterized as a meek and mild woman whose tired feet made her tiptoe into history. But her story is more revealing and certainly more interesting if you include the issue of sexual violence.
In 1944, in Abbeville, Alabama, an African American woman named Recy Taylor walked home from a church revival.
A car full of white men kidnapped her off the street, drove her to the woods and assaulted her at gunpoint.
When they finished they dropped her off in the middle of town and told her they would kill her if she told anyone what happened.
But that night, she told her husband, father, and the local sheriff about the assault. A few days later, the Montgomery NAACP called to say they were sending their best investigator. It was Rosa Parks.
She arrived on Taylor’s front porch with a notebook and a pen. Then she carried Taylor’s story back to Montgomery where she and the city’s most militant activists organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.”
They planned mass meetings, canvassed neighborhoods, signed petitions, sent postcards to the governor and attorney general and launched what the Chicago Defender called, “The strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” I wasn’t surprised to discover letters of protest and postcards signed by Lillian Smith.
Like Smith, Parks was able to help organize this nationwide campaign in 1944 in part because she was already a seasoned political activist. But it was arguably her own harrowing ordeal in 1931 that made Parks an anti-rape activist decades before the women’s movement made rape a public political issue.
Recently discovered among Parks’ belongings at Guernsey’s Auction house in New York, where her personal archive awaits a buyer, was an essay she wrote in the mid 1950s.
In it she details the long history of white on black sexual violence and reveals that her great grandmother, a slave, was the victim of multiple rapes.
She also testifies about being sexually propositioned and threatened by a white man when she was 18 years old and working as a domestic. But she doesn’t just talk about her vulnerability and fear, something she makes explicit. She also fiercely asserts her right to bodily integrity: “No matter what happens,” she wrote, “I would never yield to this white man’s bestiality. I was ready and willing to die, but give my consent? Never. Never. Never.”
I am not sure how that Rosa Parks became the silent and sainted icon of segregation that is endlessly taught in schools, but it is awfully revealing. We have accepted too long this notion that women were always silent about sexual violence and that white attacks on black women’s bodily integrity were somehow separate from the civil rights movement. But they were not. The right to move freely through the world without being assaulted is a basic human right and it was something African Americans fought for during the freedom struggle.
I hope that At the Dark End of the Street recognizes and honors these women whose bold actions and willingness to speak out about sexual violence when it was dangerous, if not deadly, to do so, sparked movements that ultimately helped to change the world. And I hope that their stories serve as an example to oppressed people everywhere to use their voices as weapons of protest against injustice. I’m confident it’s a message that both Lillian Smith and the Southern Regional Council would support.