“Walking in Pride and Dignity”: Why Danielle McGuire’s “New History” of the Civil Rights Movement Matters

"African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956" (McGuire 109).
“African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956” (McGuire 109).

by: Carol Prince

“Decades before radical feminists in the women’s movement urged rape survivors to ‘speak out,’ African-American women’s public protests galvanized local, national, and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity”(McGuire xx).

(Note: I finished writing this piece shortly after attending the keynote address of “Take Back the Night” week, which included a speak out loud section. I witnessed people in this community testify about their experiences surviving sexual violence with incredible bravery. Testifying as a survivor, I believe, is a form of resistance to domination. However, the practice of “speaking out” includes a forgotten history that is deeply interwoven with racialized sexual violence in this country. As discussed in the above quote, modern “feminist” groups who have encouraged survivors to come forward may also contribute to a kind of whitewashing. Frequently, the movement to combat sexual violence contributes to the erasure of the experiences of women of color, whose legacy, as McGuire points out, built its very foundations. I write this piece mindful, and perpetually in awe of the history of African American women who in some cases risked their lives to testify about the sexual, and racial, violence they survived. I owe my ability to reflect on this history to the women who collected testimonies and wrote them down in the face of danger; the women who seem to have been erased from historical memory.)

Studying history, to me, means engaging with material that both shatters and reshapes the way I have always understood a particular moment. Over the course of this semester, I have been reading the monograph, 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, written by Danielle L. McGuire. This book, I feel, is a transformative history because it unveils truths that have not yet been woven into American popular memory. History and memory interact through a symbiotic yet precarious relationship. In the introduction to their volume, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, Leigh Raiford and Renee Romano discuss what they call “The Struggle Over Memory.” Memory is a central component in collecting academic histories, but also shapes the way “we” as non-historians remember the past.

In shaping the memory of the Civil Rights Movement, something called “a consensus memory exists, or “dominant narrative of the movement’s goals, practices, victories, and, of course, its most lasting legacies” (Raiford and Romano xiv). This “consensus narrative” remains told as a self-contained “Civil Rights Movement” in the Deep South during the early 1960s, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which resulted in the passage of national legislation, and dissolved in the violent chaos of the late 1960s. Consequently, this dominant narrative embeds one version of the past into our collective consciousness. But what kind of movement does this “consensus” construct? Whose struggle does it exclude? As these two authors ask, “What vision of the present does it help legitimate, valorize, or condemn?” (Raiford xv).

McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street chips away at the dominant memory of the Civil Rights Movement, which has been characterized “as a struggle between black and white men” (McGuire xxx). She reframes this history through adopting the intersectional lens of gender and sexual violence. I cannot adequately dissect McGuire’s scholarship in the limited space here. While I would disagree with some of the rhetorical choices in her argument, I want to reflect more on the purpose and weight of her scholarship. The central tenant of her work is that especially between the years 1940 and 1975, sexual violence and interracial rape “became the crucial battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy” (McGuire xx). This claim not only introduces a new way to conceptualize liberation during this time period, but also unearths and incorporates testimony previously omitted from scholarship on the Black Freedom Struggle.

As McGuire points out, previous scholarship has not focused on sexual violence as a window into the impetus the Civil Rights Movement. Much scholarship focused on the lynching of black men and its connection to anxieties about the intersections of the black male and white female bodies. For example, the murder of Emmett Till and the media coverage that followed is recognized as one act of racial terrorism that catalyzed the movement. However, there remains an erased historical reality that the rape of black women by white men was a weapon of racial terrorism in this country. McGuire focuses on this silenced, but pervasive, historical truth as the fulcrum of her scholarship with each of her chapters focusing on a different episode of the Civil Rights Movement. She delves into how women, specifically women affected by the pervasive threat of sexual violence, were the main actors in movements we so often attribute to powerful men.

McGuire undermines and dismantles this narrative by drawing attention to Rosa Parks’ history of a fierce antirape activist “long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott” (McGuire xvii). During the 1940s, Parks collected the testimonies of women who had been brutally raped by white men. She travelled to some of the most dangerous portions of the Deep South to document these stories as a NAACP investigator. She collected testimonies, wrote them down, knowing that these women would most likely never receive justice. Rosa Parks was a central actor in a movement, just not the movement American popular memory has assigned her.

I do not write this to dismiss the work of men such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but rather to draw attention to the gendered nature of the politics of the Civil Rights Movement. As McGuire points out, this narrative of Rosa Parks as well as the Montgomery Bus Boycott is not only oversimplified, but also grossly mischaracterizes who Rosa Parks was. How did this narrative emerge and become so ingrained in our historical memory? McGuire explains this phenomenon through something called “the politics of respectability.”

I think the most salient moment McGuire examines is the characterization of Rosa Parks during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I do not remember the first time I encountered the ubiquitous Rosa Parks narrative, but I was very young. I remember learning that that she was an elderly woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus because she was “tired.” Martin Luther King would then sweep in to organize the boycott, creating one of the most seminal moments in early Civil Rights History.

Yet women before Rosa Parks refused to abide by Montgomery bus segregation laws. One of these women, Claudette Colvin was the first person arrested for resisting this bus segregation. However, because she was pregnant and unmarried, NAACP leaders worried about her image and ability to gain traction for the movement, her ability to adhere to social norms about womanhood during the era. Rosa Parks, conversely, represented and encapsulated the ideals of NAACP leaders. As McGuire notes, “Her conservative, Puritan-like clothing–and her memory of exactly what she wore forty years later–indicated a keen understanding of the importance of the politics of respectability” (McGuire 102). She notes, “Parks was the perfect woman to rally around….from that moment forward, Rosa Parks’ history as an activist and defiant race woman disappeared from public view. Nixon and others promoted her as a model of the middle-class ideals of ‘chastity, Godliness, family responsibility, and proper womanly conduct and demeanor’” (McGuire 100). Male leaders in the NAACP and SCLC “turned her into the kind of woman she wasn’t: a quiet victim and solemn symbol” (McGuire 107).

What is at stake in how the narrative of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is upheld in American popular memory? How does the way we privilege certain narratives above others or the way we honor the Civil Rights Movement do even more violence onto those who are not remembered in its legacy? This history factors into how we process American national identity.

Throughout her work, McGuire includes multiple testimonies of violence and abuse faced by black women at the hands of white men. The fact that McGuire includes the sheer number of testimonials that she does does the political work of introducing these testimonies into popular memory. I say “political” because it is inherently linked to how power is distributed, even in memory. As I read this history, I owe not only my ability to study and dissect these words to the women who did the political act of resistance through testimony. As a survivor of sexual violence, I owe my ability to “speak out,” to the legacy and bravery of the women in this history who testified before me. How we conceptualize resistance speaks to something that transcends the Civil Rights Movement. It is inherently linked to power, justice, and memory.

Works Cited

McGuire, Danielle L. 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. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

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