Freedom’s Architects

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

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 352 pp. $27.95, hardcover

Hands on the Freedom Plow

Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

Edited by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young and Dorothy M. Zellner

Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2010, 632 pp., $34.95, hardcover


Reviewed by Bettina Aptheker

These two extraordinary books, published almost simultaneously, completely upend both traditional and radical histories of the modern civil rights movement by placing women at the center of their narrative and interpretive process. This is a breathtaking achievement, which will alter the ways in which this history is perceived and taught. In other words, and to be as explicit as possible, these books do not simply “contribute to” or “add to” our understanding of the history; they completely shift the paradigm. In so doing, the books, individually and together, are transcendent in their implications for how we should study all social movements, honoring women’s historical agency.

Danielle L. McGuire unfolds a story of southern sexual violence, debasement, and cruelty by white men (and at times white women) that is rooted in the racism of slavery. Her purpose, however, is not only to reveal this violence; it is also to show, beyond any doubt, that the struggles of black women for dignity and justice were an integral, motivating force in the whole assemblage of the modern civil rights movement, from the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to the 1965 Selma, Alabama, voting rights march to the 1975 campaign to free Joann Little (a black woman who had escaped from jail after killing a white deputy sheriff who had attempted to rape her. When she surrendered to authorities, she was tried for murder, but her self-defense argument prevailed, and she was found not guilty). McGuire writes in a fluent, accessible style that engages her readers in the dramatic narrative of movements for social justice. Based on meticulous archival work, interviews, and the reading of a vast secondary literature, McGuire unfolds a new history.

Although many of the case studies in McGuire’s book were familiar to me, this is because of my own heritage in and around the Communist Party; they are not widely known. Moreover, it is one thing to have been aware of the late 1940s campaigns for justice—led by party-affiliated and other groups—in cases of racist violence such as the gang-rape of Recy Taylor in Alabama and the murder charges against Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons in Georgia. It is quite another to discover the political and legal details of these cases and others, complete with accounts of the mass mobilizations, photographs, newspaper stories, and other documents.

McGuire shows, with examples of well- and lesser-known cases, how systemic, ritualized sexual violence toward black women was integral to the terror visited upon the community as a whole. Angela Davis established this use of sexual terror in her essay, “Reflections on the Black Women’s Role in the Community of Slaves” (first published in The Black Scholar, December 1971). McGuire demonstrates that the descendents of slaveholders enacted the identical dynamics in the mid-twentieth century. The difference, says McGuire, is that in the twentieth century, black communities had the possibility and actuality of resistance. Even when victory eludes the movement, McGuire concludes, “Failure in the courts did not stop black women from speaking out, decades before the women’s movement.” As part of her reclamation of history, McGuire shows that black women politicized the issue of sexual violence long before this deeply personal trauma was widely understood to be a particularly savage form of social control.

Some of the most moving parts of McGuire’s study are the personal stories of the African American women who participated in the modern civil rights movement. For example, consider the life of Daisy Lee Bates, who was the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. When Bates was seven years old, her mother had been raped and murdered by three white men who were never brought to justice. As a mature woman, McGuire reports, citing Bates’s memoir, Bates “decided to transform her hatred and anger into positive action and ‘make it count for something.’”

Consider also the story of Endesha Ida Mae Holland, who became a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1962, when she was eighteen. Citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s evocation of “somebodyness,” Holland explains that she was sexually assaulted by an elderly white man, with the collusion of his wife, when she was eleven years old. Her life shattered, she went on to drop out of high school and become a prostitute. One day, she recalls, she followed a young black man down the street, asking if he “wanted some.” He turned out to be the SNCC voting-rights organizer Bob Moses. He stopped, talked to Holland, brought her to the SNCC office, introduced her to the other volunteers, and “before she knew it, she was sitting in front of a typewriter, helping local sharecroppers fill out voter-registration forms.” She was somebody, treated with respect; the movement transformed her life.

Holland was not alone in her experience, as we discover in Hands on the Freedom Plow, the stories of 52 white, black, and Latina women edited by six SNCC veterans, including Faith Holsaert and Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, who together wrote most of the introductory material. Hands on the Freedom Plow is divided into ten, roughly chronological sections, from “Entering the Troubled Waters: Sit-ins, the Founding of SNCC, and the Freedom Rides, 1960-1963,” to “Black Power: Issues of Continuity, Change, and Personal Identity, 1964-1969.”  Each section is introduced with a brief overview by the editors to orient readers unfamiliar with the history and to explain, as objectively as possible, the context for the personal testimonials that follow.

The editors make no attempt to present a singular narrative. On the contrary, each contributor tells her own story and presents her unique perceptions and analyses of the movement’s issues, conflicts, and insurgencies. Debates raged about Gandhian nonviolence versus armed self-defense, white involvement, strategies and tactics, and the role of women. The narrators describe both women’s actions, leadership, heroism, and failures and those of their male counterparts; the account is thoroughly inclusive. While the book is an assemblage of personal stories, it is encyclopedic in its collective presentation of the movement; it becomes a documentary history. With its clarity of analysis, rich photographic material, contextual notes, and chronological organization, it is a brilliant text for teaching.

Because of the power of the storytelling, as a reader I felt as though I were living through events as they were unfolding. I felt the terror of the violence and the euphoria of triumph. As Dorothy Zellner described her hysterical laughter at the absurdity of being rescued from violence by being thrown into the back seat of a pink Cadillac and hidden under newspapers on the floor, I felt giddy. I felt the horror as Faith Holsaert described the sexual violation of her person as she was “searched” by a half-dozen police officers. I was sitting in the library, but I became so thoroughly engrossed that my senses of hearing and sight receded as I entered these scenes—and many others.

Themes emerge as the stories accumulate: the women’s astounding courage; the SNCC field workers’ perseverance and strength; the insistence on making a way out of no way; the rock-bottom belief in God; the power of song; the strength of the collective and the wide variety of organizing styles within it; the mutual nurturance; the personal sacrifice; the transcendent qualities beyond the capacity of any single individual. The level of violence and cruelty visited upon activists, entire families of poverty-stricken sharecroppers, children, ministers, and congregations is well-known: the attack dogs, arrests, torture, fire-bombings, sexual abuse, and murder. White women and men, sheriff’s deputies, and National Guard soldiers spewed hatred. The federal authorities were inept. The FBI colluded with the racist establishment. In story after story, the opposition feels as relentless as the tide. Yet the momentum of the tens of thousands of black people coming into the movement was equally relentless—an unending, invincible stream of humanity more powerful than the fire hoses turned upon them.

Nonviolent discipline held most of the time, even in the face of the onslaught, and even as African American “movement mamas” held rifles and shotguns across their laps on the front porches of their homes all night, so that the SNCC workers inside could sleep. According to Joanne Grant, in “Peek Around the Mountain,” one of those mamas, Dolly Raines of southwest Georgia, reported with a complete sense of the irony, that she was “the most nonviolent shot in the county.”

Occasionally, southern whites show glimmers of kindness. One police officer told the white Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Milholland to be careful, because “[w]e don’t want to see you chillun get hurt.” The sit-in leader Diane Nash explains, “It was our practice to engage in conversation with prison personnel, arresting policemen, lunch-counter managers, and anyone in the opposition. We would talk to them in a calm, constructive manner designed to urge them to consider the morality of segregation.”

For women, especially, their experiences in the movement were transformative. Mary E. King—who along with Casey Hayden wrote “Sex and Caste,” a 1965 position paper about women in SNCC that became emblematic of the rising feminist consciousness—observes,

Women did what men did in SNCC. James Forman may have been as responsible as any single person for SNCC’s inherently egalitarian spirit toward women. Jim would sometimes sweep the floor in the Atlanta headquarters and, without lecturing or hectoring, conspicuously make the point that all work was of importance and that everyone shared in it.

Joanne Grant and numerous other contributors describe the unassuming yet utterly commanding, influential presence of the SNCC advisor Ella Baker, who helped to found the organization and maintain its independence from both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP. During innumerable, endless meetings she helped to calm troubled waters.

In a long, stunning essay Gloria Richardson, who led the movement in Cambridge, Maryland, describes her own radical, not-so-pacific militancy—which led to her unfortunate exclusion from the platform honoring the women of the movement at the 1963 March on Washington. Finally allowed on stage, she managed to get out the word “hello” before an NAACP official yanked the microphone from her hand. The moments of division, anger, and hurt are also part of the story.

Editor Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, in one of her previous essays [“Shining in the Dark: Black Women and the Struggle for the Vote,” in Ann D. Gordon, et al. editors, African American Women and the Vote: 1837-1965, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997 ], wrote

[Black women] were not just the backbone, or the spine, of the movement. They were not a specified part, something distinct, or something that can be compartmentalized. Rather, they were such an integral part of the movement that they permeated every aspect, every nook and cranny. They should be viewed by history as synonymous with the movement itself and then treated accordingly.

In precisely this way Hands on the Freedom Plow corrects the historical record for all of the women of SNCC who were, in the words of one participant, “people of such dazzling brightness.”

Bettina Aptheker is a distinguished professor of Feminist Studies and History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she has taught for more than thirty years. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became A Feminist Rebel (2006). She co-led the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964 and was a participant in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and women’s liberation movements. She also co-led the international movement to free Angela Davis in the early 1970s.

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