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At the Dark End of the Street [Book Review]

At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle L. McGuire opens with the 1944 abduction and gang rape of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama. Rosa Parks, Secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, met with Taylor to gather notes about the attack. The book uses Taylor’s case as a centerpiece for charting the timeline of campaigns for achieving equal legal protection for Black women.

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Acts of violence and oppression were common and reflected society’s disregard of Black humanity. It’s common knowledge that White supremacists used acts of violence to intimidate Black people. But the oppression of Black women through sexual violence and harassment is rarely discussed. Dating back to slavery, the precarious social status of Black women throughout the South made them vulnerable to rape.

Racism and sexism in society meant that the rights of Black women weren’t acknowledged or respected. As a result, they battled against stereotypes that portrayed them as being “unrapeable”. Racist police departments dismissed charges outright and some police officers participated in attacks. Victims faced additional intimidation and violence for having the audacity to exercise their rights. In rare convictions, White male assailants received slaps on the wrist as punishment.

False allegations of crimes and insults obscured the real motivations for lynchings. White supremacists committed acts of violence against Black men in the name of protecting white womanhood. Yet, many of these same supremacists participated in or turned a blind eye to attacks on and aggression towards Black women.

At the Dark End of the Street made me realize that history classes fall short when covering select topics. The discriminatory practices of the Montgomery bus system reflected larger societal issues. Under Jim Crow, Black people contributed revenue to systems and services that restricted them as patrons. This is ironic because America prided itself on equality for all and rebelled against Britain to escape taxation without representation.

I thought I knew the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott but as with Rosa Parks, my knowledge was basic and sanitized. School and previous books that I’ve read didn’t capture the conditions that resulted in the urgent push for change. I’d learned that Black people boycotted the buses so they could sit where they wanted. The examples of hostility and degradation that Black women faced while being the primary bus riders was eye-opening.

Another point At the Dark End of the Street clarified for me was the actual organization of the boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were the primary individuals that I knew from the boycott. I was aware of some of the prominent men credited as the leaders of the boycott. Yet, knew none of the women who launched the boycott and organized the day-to-day activities. It’s unfortunate that these women sacrificed their time and risked their livelihoods only to become footnotes in history.

It was motivating to read the history of Black women’s fight for equality but problems remain. A small percentage of the perpetrators of sex crimes see a courtroom or prison. Poor, Black, and/or female victims are easier prey because they receive less support from society and access to fewer resources. Trials call victims’ behavior and sexual history into question. Convictions result in lenient sentences compared to those for other crimes.

Recommendation

Reading about (what is probably a fraction of) the sexual assaults that took place leading up to and during the modern Civil Rights Movement was difficult. At the Dark End of the Street is informative and packs a great deal of historical information into a relatively short book. Yet, the content still manages to respect the personhood of the victims whose stories are shared.

I recommend the book for a different perspective on Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a good jumping off point for learning about some of the less celebrated women of the Civil Rights Movement. It doesn’t really directly discuss feminism or womanism but touches on topics related to those ideologies.

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