At the Dark End of the Street
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At the Dark End of the Street

January 2011

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
by Danielle L. McGuire Knopf, 352 pages, $27.95, hardcover

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In this compelling book, Danielle L. McGuire excavates a tragic hidden legacy of slavery in the United States: the rape and sexual exploitation of thousands of black females (both women and girls) from the antebellum period to the present. McGuire, a history professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, traces the societal indifference toward and complicity in this sexual violence to their roots in slavery and forced miscegenation, when "a black woman's body was never hers alone." From this starting point, she presents a novel thesis: that the resistance of black women to their own sexual oppression was a major catalyst of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, effecting significant turning points such as the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, and the rise of the Black Power movement.

McGuire begins this capacious history with the unsettling account of the 1944 kidnapping and gang rape of Recy Taylor, a black 24-year-old mother and sharecropper, in Abbeville, Alabama. Accosted by seven white men as she left church with her friends, Taylor survived the assault and reported it to the Montgomery branch office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP sent as its investigator the then-unknown Rosa Parks, whom McGuire describes as "a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an antirape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott." After meeting with Taylor, Parks decided to help organize the Committee for Equal Justice, which galvanized a nationwide campaign against the racial and sexual exploitation of black women.

Parks and the committee investigated numerous cases of rapes of black women by white men, which rarely resulted in arrests, prosecution, or conviction. They also worked on cases in which black men were summarily convicted or executed for having consensual relations with white women. McGuire persuasively connects the history of the rape of black women with the lynching of black men as dual constructs of sexual/racial terrorism.

The Committee for Equal Justice of the 1940s evolved into the Montgomery Improvement Association, which laid the groundwork and strategy for Parks's historic act of civil disobedience and the ensuing citywide bus boycott of 195556. Throughout this process, the voices and activism of black women were primary factors in the boycott's success. McGuire is particularly effective in documenting the role of black working women-maids, seamstresses, church women-as the backbone of the movement, and in explaining how their activism was integrally linked to freedom from the legacy of sexual enslavement and exploitation.

McGuire's groundbreaking thesis also covers (albeit more briefly) the history of black women's activism after the civil rights era. And in a stunning epilogue, McGuire pays a visit to the 89-year-old Taylor in Alabama at the time of the Obama inauguration. Taylor comments that "not in my lifetime" had she expected to see a black woman as first lady. McGuire quotes Michelle Obama's observation that understanding the history of black women's struggle for respect in America is "a process of uncovering the shame, digging out the pride that is part of that story—so that other folks feel comfortable about embracing the beauty and the tangled nature of the history of this country." At the Dark End of the Street contributes admirably to this process.

Margaret M. Russell is a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, where she teaches constitutional law and civil procedure. She is the editor of The First Amendment: Freedom of Assembly and Petition (Prometheus Books, 2010).

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