August 2011, Week 4


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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

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


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