I knew this was a story I had to tell when I figured out that black women had been enduring, resisting and testifying about interracial sexual violence for years and that these crucial and revealing moments had never made their way into the history of the civil rights movement.
My first sense that historians had missed something big was in the winter of 1998. I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was listening to NPR. Veterans of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott were speaking about their experiences and Joe Azbell, the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser talked about a woman I had never heard of. He said something like, "Gertrude Perkins is never mentioned in the history books, but she had as much to do with the bus boycott as anyone on earth." I stopped and looked at my friend, confused. "Everyone knows Rosa Parks was the one who caused the boycott," I said, "so who the heck is Gertrude Perkins?"
The next day, I went to the archive and ordered the Montgomery Advertiser on microfilm and started searching. I found out that two white police officers kidnapped and raped Gertrude Perkins, an African-American woman, in 1949. Instead of remaining silent, she told her minister, Reverend Solomon S. Seay Sr., and he encouraged her to press charges. Local black activists and ministers rallied to her defense and launched a citywide campaign to bring her assailants to trial. Their public protests were so effective, the "Perkins case" appeared on the front page of the Advertiser, the local "white" newspaper, for nearly two months. In the end, however, an all-white, all-male grand jury refused to indict the policemen. Still, it was the first time the black ministers were, as Seay put it, "all shook up."
I was not sure what to do with this information -- how to fit it into a story that was already so well known. I couldn't see how it connected until I started digging a little deeper. I was in the process of researching the 1959 gang-rape of Betty Jean Owens, a black college student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida when I kept coming across similar cases of white men attacking black women throughout the Deep South. It seemed as if every front page of every black newspaper between 1940 and 1950 featured the same story: a black woman was walking home from school, work or church when a group of white men abducted her at gunpoint, took her outside of town, and brutally assaulted her.
I began sifting through court files and old trial transcripts and the evidence showed that white on black rape was endemic in the segregated South. Black women were vulnerable to racial and sexual violence and they often testified about their experiences -- in churches, courtrooms, and congressional hearings. Their testimonies often led to civil rights campaigns that began with a simple demand for justice and became a struggle for human rights and human dignity. This was true in Montgomery, where Rosa Parks and her allies had been protesting rape and sexualized racial violence on the buses for nearly a decade before the 1955-56 boycott, as well as other major movement centers.
I felt like I had discovered a whole new civil rights movement with black women and their struggle for dignity, respect and bodily integrity at the center, that is as poignant, painful and complicated as our own lives.
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. Find out more on her website.