“IT WAS LIKE ALL OF US HAD BEEN RAPED”: SEXUAL VIOLENCE, COMMUNITY MOBILIZATION, AND THE AFRICAN AMERICAN FREEDOM STRUGGLE: PART 1

“Perhaps she remembers her great great grandmother who wanted to protest but only rolled her eyes and willed herself not to scream when the white man mounted her from behind.”

Andrea Williams, “Something to Talk About”

I have written many posts on the sexual violation that Black women and girls have suffered through the centuries of America’s reign of terror against Black women.

The recent information on Mrs. Recy Taylor’s ordeal is only a small tip of the iceberg of racist sexualized gendered hate that Black women have had to endure in this nation. Many people across the Internet upon hearing of Mrs. Taylor’s ordeal are astounded and surprised that such atrocities have happened to Black women after the abolition of slavery. This ignorance of this aspect of Black women’s history in America comes as no surprise to me, as much of the history of Black women has been given so much historical amnesia. Even during the Civil Rights Movement, one would be at a loss to give even one example of the venomous racist and sexist hate that Black women suffered under the reign of Jane Crow segregation.

Looking at the famous documentary Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954 – 1965, a viewer would have indelibly stamped on their minds that Black women had it easy during segregation. Save for one scene that shows a vicious White policeman grabbing a Black woman during a protest incident, and viciously shoving her down the street, one would think that the massive gang-rapes against Black women had ended with the abolition of slavery.

One would be wrong.

For almost a century after the end of slavery, Black women and girls faced daily the filth of insults, sexual coercion, battery, rape, and death at the hands of tormentors—tormentors who knew they could literally get away with murder.

Many Black women in many ways spoke out against and challenged this racist sexist hypocrisy of a soul-murdering society that considered Black women and girls as less than human.

The following article (which I present in two parts) by Danielle L. McGuire gives an excellent discussion on some of the Black women whose names became a part of the CRM movement to bring down the cruelty of rape that so pervaded the lives of Black women and girls. The article address the fact that Black women have been speaking out against the violation of their bodies, and that the true battle of the CRM was always about the bodies of women—both Black and White.

The upheld sanctity and protection of White women’s lives and bodies, and the degradation, defilement and destruction of Black women’s bodies. Women’s bodies used as battlefields, with the attacks on Black women’s bodies as never-out-of-season casualties of a race war. The lie of the myth of the black rapist, used to lynch Black men, when the real beasts and rapists were the White men who enacted laws, both de facto and de jure, that gave them the right to rape and kill so many, many Black women with impunity. In essence, it was the racial and sexual domination of both Black women and Black men.

The article speaks of the long history that Black women have in America of speaking truth to power, of not remaining silent, even in the face of certain death. The will to leave behind a testimony of challenging the wrongs done to them, and their will to fight against the suffocating oppression under which they lived.

The many unknown and unheralded names of the women who were raped serve as beacons to light the way to knowledge of the hell of a history that Black women have had in this land of the free, home of the brave.

Names like Frances Thompson, Mrs. Recy Taylor, Betty Jean Owens, Harriet Simril, Essic Harris, Ferdie Walker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gertrude Perkins, and Mrs. Mary Ruth Reed.

Women who bear witness to testimony going back to slavery, Reconstruction, Jane Crow segregation, and during the Civil Rights Movement.

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“It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped”: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle

  1. Danielle L. McGuire, Ph.D. candidate in history at Rutgers University

On Saturday, May 2, 1959, four white men in Tallahassee, Florida, made a pact, one of their friends testified in court later, to “go out and get a nigger girl” and have an “all night party.” That evening, they armed themselves with shotguns and switchblades and crept up behind a car parked alongside a quiet road near Jake Gaither Park. At about 1:00 a.m. on May 3, Patrick Scarborough pressed a sixteen-gauge shotgun against the driver’s nose and ordered Richard Brown and his companions out of the car. Dressed in formal gowns and tuxedoes, the four African Americans— all students at Florida A&M University who had spent the evening dancing at the Green and Orange Ball—reluctantly stepped out of the car. Scarborough forced the two black men to kneel, while his friend David Beagles held the two black women at knifepoint. When Betty Jean Owens began to cry, Beagles slapped her and told her to “shut up” or she “would never get back home.” Waving his gun, Scarborough ordered Richard Brown and his friend Thomas Butterfield back in the car and told them to leave. As Brown and Butterfield began to move toward the car and then slowly drove away, Edna Richardson broke free and ran to the nearby park, leaving Betty Jean Owens alone with their attackers. Beagles pressed the switchblade to Owens’s throat and growled, “We’ll let you go if you do what we want,” then forced her to her knees, slapped her as she sobbed, and pushed her into the backseat of their blue Chevrolet; the four men drove her to the edge of town, where they raped her seven times.1

Analyses of rape play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, even as stories of violence against black and white men—from Emmett Till to Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney—provide gripping examples of racist brutality.2 Despite a growing body of literature that focuses on the roles of black and white women and the operation of gender in the movement, sexualized violence—both as a tool of oppression and as a political spur for the movement—has yet to find its place in the story of the African American freedom struggle.3 Rape, like lynching and murder, served as a tool of psychological and physical intimidation that expressed white male domination and buttressed white supremacy. During the Jim Crow era, women’s bodies served as signposts of the social order, and white men used rape and rumors of rape not only to justify violence against black men but to remind black women that their bodies were not their own.

African American women frequently retaliated by testifying about their brutal experiences. I argue that, from Harriet Jacobs to Ida B. Wells to the women of the present, the refusal of black women to remain silent about sexualized violence was part of a long-standing tradition. Black women described and denounced their sexual misuse, deploying their voices as weapons in the wars against white supremacy. Indeed, their public protests often galvanized local, national, and even international outrage and sparked campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. When Betty Jean Owens spoke out against her assailants, and when the local black community mobilized in defense of her womanhood in 1959, they joined in this tradition of testimony and protest.

The arrest, trial, and conviction of Owens’s white rapists by an all-white jury marked a dramatic change in the relations between this tradition of testimony and a tradition of silence that Darlene Clark Hine has termed the “culture of dissem-blance.”4 The verdict not only broke with southern tradition but fractured the philosophical and political foundations of white supremacy by challenging the relationship between sexual domination and racial inequality. For perhaps the first time since Reconstruction, southern black communities could imagine state power being deployed in defense of their respectability as men and women. As a result, the 1959 Tallahassee rape case was a watershed event that remains as revealing now as it was important then.

The sexual exploitation of black women had its roots in slavery. Slave owners, overseers, and drivers took advantage of their positions of power and authority to rape slave women, sometimes in the presence of their husbands or families. White slave owners’ stolen access to black women’s bodies strengthened their political, social, and economic power, partly because colonial laws made the offspring of slave women the property of their masters.5 After the fall of slavery, when African Americans asserted their freedom during the interracial experiment in democracy that briefly characterized Reconstruction, former slaveholders and their sympathizers used violence and terror to reassert control over the social, political, and economic agency of freedpeople. At the heart of this violence, according to Gerda Lerner, rape became a “weapon of terror” to dominate the bodies and minds of African American men and women.6

“Freedom,” as Tera Hunter notes, “was meaningless without ownership and control over one’s own body.” During Reconstruction and Jim Crow, sexualized violence served as a “ritualistic reenactment of the daily pattern of social dominance,” and interracial rape became the battleground upon which black men and women fought for ownership of their own bodies. Many African American women who were raped or assaulted by white men fought back by speaking out. Frances Thompson told a congressional committee investigating the 1866 Memphis race riot that seven armed white men broke into her house on a Tuesday afternoon, “drew their pistols and said they would shoot us and fire the house if we did not let them have their way with us.” Four of the men raped Frances, while the other three choked and raped sixteen-year-old Lucy Smith and left her close to death. In 1871, Harriet Simril testified in front of a congressional committee investigating Ku Klux Klan terror during Reconstruction that she was beaten and “ravished” by eight men in South Carolina who broke into her house to force her husband to “join the democratic ticket.” Essic Harris, appearing before the same committee, reported that “the rape of black women was so frequent” in the postbellum South that it had become “an old saying by now.” Ferdie Walker, who grew up during the height of segregation in the 1930s and 1940s in Fort Worth, Texas, remembered being “scared to death” by a white police officer who often exposed himself to her while she waited at the bus stop when she was only eleven years old. The sexual abuse of black women, she recalled, was an everyday occurrence. “That was really bad and it was bad for all black girls,” she recalled.7

John H. McCray, editor of the South Carolina Lighthouse and Informer, reported that it was “a commonplace experience for many of our women in southern towns … to be propositioned openly by white men.” He said, “You can pick up accounts of these at a dime a dozen in almost any community.” African American women that I interviewed in Birmingham, Alabama, in March 2003 echoed Ferdie Walker’s and McCray’s comments. Nearly all of them testified about being sexually abused or intimidated by white men—particularly bus drivers, police officers, and employers.…8

The acclaimed freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer knew that rape and sexual violence was a common occurrence in the segregated South. …For Freedom’s Sake, Chana Kai Lee’s biography of Hamer, is one of the few histories of the modern-day civil rights movement that openly deals with and documents the legacy of sexual assault. Hamer’s grandmother, Liza Bramlett, spoke often of the “horrors of slavery,” including stories about “how the white folks would do her.” Bramlett’s daughter remembered that “this man would keep her as long as he want to and then he would trade her off for a little heifer calf. Then the other man would get her and keep her as long as he want—she was steady having babies—and trade her off for a little sow pig.” Twenty of the twenty-three children Bramlett gave birth to were products of rape.9

Hamer grew up with the clear understanding that a “black woman’s body was never hers alone.” If she was at all unclear about this lesson, the forced hysterectomy she received in 1961 and the brutal beating she received in the Winona, Mississippi, jail in 1963 left little room for confusion. After being arrested with other Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists for desegregating a restaurant, Hamer received a savage and sexually abusive beating by the Winona police. “You bitch,” one officer yelled, “we going to make you wish you was dead.” He ordered two black inmates to beat Hamer with “a long wide blackjack,” while other patrolmen battered “her head and other parts of her body.” As they assaulted her, Hamer felt them repeatedly “pull my dress over my head and try to feel under my clothes.” She attempted to pull her dress down during the brutal attack in order to “preserve some respectability through the horror and disgrace.” Hamer told this story on national television at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 and continued to tell it “until the day she died,” offering her testimony of the sexual and racial injustice of segregation.10

By speaking out, whether it was in the church, the courtroom, or a congressional hearing, black women used their own public voices to reject the stereotypes used by white supremacists to justify economic and sexual exploitation, and they reaffirmed their own humanity. Additionally, African American women’s refusal to remain silent offered African American men an opportunity to assert themselves as men by rallying around the protection of black womanhood. Many other men, however, remained silent since speaking out was often dangerous, if not deadly. Most important, women’s testimonies were a political act that exposed the bitter ironies of segregation and white supremacy, helped to reverse the shame and humiliation rape inflicts, and served as catalysts in mobilizing mass movements.11

Only after local and national groups were organized, black women’s testimony began to spark public campaigns for equal justice and protection of black womanhood. In this respect, World War II served as a watershed for African Americans— especially in the South. Black women’s testimony and the willingness of black leaders to protect black womanhood must be viewed as part of these resistance movements. For example, in Montgomery, Alabama, the organizational infrastructure that made the Montgomery bus boycott possible in 1955 stemmed in part from decades of black women’s activism and a history of gendered political appeals to protect black women from sexual assault. The majority of leaders active in the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1955 cut their political teeth demanding justice for black women who were raped in the 1940s and early 1950s.12

In 1944, the kidnapping and gang rape of Mrs. Recy Taylor by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama, sparked what the Chicago Defender called “the strongest campaign for equal justice to Negroes to be seen in a decade.” Taylor, a twenty-four-year old African American woman, was walking home from the Rock Hill Holiness Church near Abbeville on September 3 when a carload of six white men pulled alongside her, pointed a gun at her head, and ordered her to get into the car. They drove her to a vacant patch of land where Herbert Lovett pointed his rifle at Taylor and demanded she get out of the car and “get them rags off or I will kill you and leave you down here in the woods.” Lovett held her at gunpoint while each of the white men took turns “ravishing” her. After the men raped her, Lovett blindfolded her, pushed her into the car, and dropped her off in the middle of town. That night, Recy Taylor told her father, her husband, and Deputy Sheriff Lewey Corbitt the details of her harrowing assault.13

Within a few weeks, the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor formed and was led on a local level by Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, Rufus A. Lewis, and E. G. Jackson (editor of the Alabama Tribune), all of whom later became pivotal figures in the Montgomery bus boycott. By utilizing the political infrastructure designed to defend the Scottsboro boys a decade earlier and employing the rhetoric of democracy sparked by World War II, Parks, Nixon, and their allies secured the support of national labor unions, African American organizations, women’s groups, and thousands of individuals who demanded that Gov. Chauncey Sparks order an immediate investigation and trial. “The raping of Mrs. Recy Taylor was a fascist-like, brutal violation of her personal rights as a woman and as a citizen of democracy,” Eugene Gordon, a reporter for the New York Daily Worker, wrote in a pamphlet about the case; “Mrs. Taylor was not the first Negro woman to be outraged,” he argued, “but it is our intention to make her the last. White-supremacy imitators of Hitler’s storm troopers [will] shrink under the glare of the nation’s spotlight.” Gordon closed by universalizing the rape: “The attack on Mrs. Taylor was an attack on all women. Mrs. Taylor is a Negro … but no woman is safe or free until all women are free.”14 Few African Americans were surprised when the Henry County Grand Jury twice failed to indict the white men—despite the governor’s belief that they were, in fact, guilty. Still, Recy Taylor’s testimony launched a national and international campaign for equal justice that must not be ignored.15

Five years later, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, rallied to the defense of a twenty-five-year-old black woman named Gertrude Perkins. On March 27, 1949, Perkins was walking home when she was arrested for public drunkenness and attacked by two white police officers in uniform. After forcing her into their squad car, they drove her to the edge of town and raped her repeatedly at gunpoint. Afterwards, they threw her out of their car and sped away. Somehow, she found the strength to stagger into town, where she went directly to Rev. Solomon Seay Sr.’s house. Awaking him, she told him the details of her brutal assault through sobs and tears. “We didn’t go to bed that morning,” remembered Seay; “I kept her at my house, carefully wrote down what she said, and later had it notarized.” Seay sent Perkins’s horror story to the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who let the whole country know what happened in his daily radio address before Montgomery’s white leaders knew what hit them.16

The leaders of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Negro Improvement League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by E. D. Nixon and the Reverend Mr. Seay, joined together to form the Citizens Committee for Gertrude Perkins. Mary Fair Burks and her newly formed Women’s Political Council may have been involved since one of their early goals was to “aid victims of rape.” Although the community mobilized on behalf of Perkins, a grand jury failed to indict the assailants a few weeks later, despite running the full process of “the Anglo-Saxon system of justice.” Still, Joe Azbell, editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, thought Gertrude Perkins, who bravely spoke out against the men who raped her, “had as much to do with the bus boycott and its creation as anyone on earth.” The Perkins protest did not occur in isolation. In February 1951, Rufus A. Lewis, whose influence was crucial to the 1955 campaign, led a boycott of a grocery store owned by Sam E. Green, a white man, who was accused of raping his black teenage babysitter while driving her home. Lewis, a World War II veteran and football coach at Alabama State University, organized other veterans and members of the Citizens’ Coordinating Committee in the successful campaign to close the store and bring Green to trial.17

The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott itself can be viewed as the most obvious example of the African American community coming to the rescue of a black woman, Rosa Parks, though not because of rape. When Parks sat down in a bus’s “noman ‘s land” and was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, Montgomery blacks found the perfect woman to rally around. “Humble enough to be claimed by the common folk,” Taylor Branch notes, Rosa Parks was “dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leading classes.” Rosa Parks fit the middle-class ideals of “chastity, Godliness, family responsibility, and proper womanly conduct and demeanor” and was the kind of woman around which all the African Americans in Montgomery could rally. It is clear that her symbolic role as icon of virtuous black womanhood was decisive in Montgomery. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first speech at Holt Street Baptist Church stressed this point. “And since it had to happen,” the young preacher told the crowd, “I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks. Nobody can doubt the height of her character; nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.”18

By selecting Rosa Parks as the symbol of segregation instead of other, less exemplary black women who had been arrested on buses earlier in 1955, black leaders in Montgomery embraced the “politics of respectability” and adhered to what Darlene Clark Hine calls the “culture of dissemblance” as a matter of political necessity amidst the burning white backlash that the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education sparked.19 The White Citizens’ Councils, a kind of uptown Ku Klux Klan, led the movement for massive resistance to school integration by relying heavily on sexual scare tactics and white fears of racial amalgamation. As a result, any gender or racial impropriety on the part of African Americans could be viewed as threatening the social order. For the supporters of segregation, “integration always meant miscegenation.” Headlines in the Citizens’ Council warned that “mixed marriage,” “sex orgies,” and accounts of black men raping white girls were “typical of stories filtering back from areas where racial integration is proceeding ‘with all deliberate speed.’”20

In this environment, respectability and dissemblance required that silence surround black sexuality, a “cult of secrecy” that helped counter negative stereotypes and kept the inner lives of African Americans hidden from white people. This selfimposed reticence, Hine argues, “implied that those [African American women] who spoke out provided grist for detractors’ mills and, even more ominously, tore the protective cloaks from their inner selves.”21 Silence as strategy did not emerge in the midtwentieth century; it had been a staple of black clubwomen’s politics since Reconstruction, when whites continued to use racist violence and sexual abuse to shore up white supremacy.

The culture of dissemblance does not mean there was an unbroken wall of silence. There are moments in history when the pain of violation or the opportunity for justice forced women to come forward to speak out against their abusers. Yet this code of secrecy, a political imperative during the Montgomery bus boycott, helped create a void in the historical record. As a result, violence toward black women has not been as “vividly and importantly retained in our collective memory,” Elsa Barkley Brown claims, as the lynching of and violence against black men.22

In many ways, this culture of dissemblance silenced more than the survivors of rape; it also trained historians of the black freedom struggle to ignore the subject of black women’s dissemblance. Over the past two decades, historians have sharpened their focus on the gendered meanings of respectability, but they have lost sight of the role rape and the threat of sexual violence played in the daily lives of African American women as well as within the larger black freedom struggle.23 Yet throughout the Jim Crow South African American women such as Recy Taylor in 1944, Gertrude Perkins in 1949, and Betty Jean Owens in 1959 refused to shield their pain in secrecy, thereby challenging the pervasiveness of the politics of respectability. Following in the footsteps of their Reconstruction-era counterparts, they testified about their assaults, leaving behind critical evidence that historians must find the courage to analyze.

To be sure, black women’s refusal to remain silent about sexual violence during and after slavery suggests that the culture of dissemblance functioned in tension and in tandem with a tradition of testimony. Even after respectability became the key to black women’s symbolic place in the civil rights movement in the early 1950s, however, a number of African American women continued to speak out publicly about being raped, and African American community members rallied to their defense. Unfortunately, too many of these stories remain buried in the archives, yellowing newspapers, or the memories of the survivors, contributing to the historical amnesia about black women’s experiences. And Montgomery, Alabama, was not the only place in which attacks on black womanhood fueled protests against white supremacy. Betty Jean Owens’s experience in Florida is evidence that a significant story has been missed across the South.

When the four armed white men in Tallahassee forced Thomas Butterfield and Richard Brown to get into their car and drive away, leaving Betty Jean Owens and Edna Richardson at the mercy of their assailants, the two black men did not abandon them but drove around the corner and waited. As the blue Chevrolet disappeared down the street, Brown and Butterfield hurried back to the scene. Edna Richardson, the black woman who was able to get away, saw her friends from her hiding spot, called out to them, and then ran to the car. Hoping to save Owens, the Florida A&M students rushed to the local police station to report the crime.24

Similar situations in other southern towns had typically left African Americans without police aid. The officer on duty that night in Tallahassee was Joe Cooke Jr., a nineteen-year-old intern from the all-white Florida State University. Much to the surprise of the three black students, he agreed to look for Owens and her assailants. After a lengthy search, one of the students finally spotted the blue Chevrolet and shouted, “That’s it!” It was just after 4:00 a.m. Deputy Cooke turned on his flashers and drove alongside the car. Attempting to escape, the kidnappers led Cooke “twisting and turning through the dark streets of Tallahassee at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.” One of the white men suggested “dumping the nigger,” but William Collinsworth replied, “we can’t now, he’s on our tail.” Finally, Collinsworth pulled the car to the curb, grabbed his shotgun, and got out of the car. Deputy Cooke drew his pistol and ordered all four to line up against the car or, he threatened, “I will shoot to kill.”25

As they waited for assistance from Cooke’s supervisor, they heard muffled screams coming from the car. Richard Brown and Deputy Cooke peered through the rear window and saw Betty Jean Owens, bound and gagged, lying on the backseat floorboards. Brown tried to help her out of the car, but, as her feet touched the ground, she collapsed. Cooke drove Betty Jean Owens and her friends to the local colored hospital at Florida A&M while Deputy Sheriff W. W. Slappey arrested the four white men and drove them to the jailhouse.26

Laughing and joking on the way to the police station, the four white men apparently did not take their arrest seriously, nor did they think they had done anything wrong. Collinsworth, for example, worried less about the charges against him than about the safety of his car. Deputy Sheriff Slappey revealed his disgust when he handed the men over to Sheriff Raymond Hamlin Jr. “They all admitted it,” Slappey said; “they didn’t say why they did it and that’s all I’m going to say about this dirty business.” William Collinsworth, David Beagles, Ollie Stoutamire, and Patrick Scarborough confessed in writing to abducting Betty Jean Owens at gunpoint and having “sexual relations” with her. When Sheriff Hamlin asked the men to look over their statements and make any necessary corrections, David Beagles, smiling, bent over the table and made one minor adjustment before he and his friends were hustled off to jail.27

If the four white men did not take their arrests seriously, students at Florida A&M University flew into a rage. Many of them were veterans of the Tallahassee bus boycott in 1957, a Montgomery-inspired campaign that highlighted the trend in students’ preference for direct action rather than the more respectable and slower litigation favored by the NAACP throughout the 1940s and 1950s. When the students heard news of the attack on Owens and the subsequent arrest of four white men, a small group planned an armed march to city hall to let city officials know that they were willing to protect black womanhood the same way whites “protected” white womanhood—with violence or at least a show of force. Mainstream student leaders persuaded them that an armed march was “the wrong thing to do” and patched together a “Unity” demonstration on Sunday, May 3, only twelve hours after Betty Jean Owens was admitted to the hospital and the four white men were taken to jail.28

Fifteen hundred students filled Lee Auditorium, where Clifford Taylor, president of the Student Government Association, said he “would not sit idly by and see our sisters, wives, and mothers desecrated.” Using language white men in power could understand, student leaders professed their “belief in the dignity, respect, and protection of womanhood” and announced that they would petition the governor and other authorities for a “speedy and impartial trial.”29

Early the next day, a thousand students gathered in the university’s grassy quadrangle with signs, hymns, and prayers aimed at the national news media, which sent out stories of the attack across the country. The students planned to show Tallahassee and the rest of the nation that white men could no longer attack black women without consequence. Student protesters held signs calling for “Justice”; other posters declared, “It could have been YOUR sister, wife, or mother.” Some students linked the attack in Tallahassee to larger issues related to the black freedom struggle: two students held up a poster depicting scenes from Little Rock, Arkansas, which read, “My God How Much More of This Can We Take.”30

It was the deeply personal violation that rape inflicts, however, that gave the students their focus. Patricia Stephens Due remembered feeling helpless and unsafe. She recalled, “we all felt violated, male and female. It was like all of us had been raped.” The student leader Buford Gibson, speaking to a crowd, universalized the attack when he said, “You must remember it wasn’t just one Negro girl that was raped—it was all of Negro womanhood in the South.”31 By using Betty Jean Owens as a black Everywoman, Gibson challenged male students to rise up in protest and then placed the protection of black womanhood in their hands. Gibson’s exhortation inspired students at Florida A&M to maintain their nonviolent demonstration, unlike white men who historically used the protection of white womanhood to inspire mob violence against black men.

At about the same time, white men in Poplarville, Mississippi, used the protection of womanhood as justification for the lynching of Mack Charles Parker, a black man who was charged with the kidnapping and rape of a twenty-four-year-old white woman who could barely identify him in a police lineup. On April 25, 1959, two days before his trial, a group of eight to ten white men obtained keys to Parker’s unguarded jail cell, savagely beat him, and then dragged him down three flights of stairs and out of the building while he screamed “I’m innocent.” Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents located Parker’s bloated body floating in the Pearl River on May 4, 1959, just two days after four white men gang-raped Betty Jean Owens.32

The Parker lynching cast a shadow over Tallahassee, brutally reminding the black community that white women’s bodies were off limits, while the bodies of black women were fair game.

Accelerating media coverage, student-led protests, and a threat to boycott classes at Florida A&M forced Judge W. May Walker to call members of the grand jury into special session in Tallahassee on May 6, 1959. Over two hundred black spectators, mostly students, squeezed into the segregated balcony at the Leon County Courthouse to catch a glimpse of Betty Jean Owens and her attackers before they retreated into the secret hearing. Still undergoing hospital treatment for injuries inflicted during the attack and for “severe depression,” Owens was accompanied to the courthouse by a nurse, the hospital administrator, and her mother.33

Gasps and moans emanated from the balcony when, after two hours behind closed doors, William Collinsworth, David Beagles, Patrick Scarborough, and Ollie Stoutamire emerged, calmly faced the judge, and pleaded innocent to the charge of rape, making a jury trial mandatory. African Americans in the balcony roared with disapproval. Dr. M. C. Williams, a local black leader, shouted, “four colored men would be dead if the situation had been reversed. It looks like an open and shut case.” Defense attorneys for Collinsworth and Scarborough argued for a delay, insisting that public excitement threatened a fair trial, but Judge Walker ignored their objections. For the first time in Florida history, a judge sent the white defendants charged with raping an African American woman back to jail to await their trial. Echoing the sentiments of the people around him, a young boy traced “we want justice” in the dust on the railing of the segregated balcony.34

Justice was the last thing the black community expected. In the thirty-four years since Florida began sending convicted rapists to the electric chair instead of the gallows, the state had electrocuted thirty-seven African Americans charged with raping white women. Before this, Florida led the country in per capita lynchings, even surpassing such notoriously violent states as Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. From 1900 to 1930, white Floridians lynched 281 people, 256 of whom were African American. Throughout its history, Florida never executed or lynched a white man for raping a black woman. In this respect, Florida followed the entire region. Florida’s violent history included the “little Scottsboro” case involving Samuel Shepard, Walter Irvin, and Charles Greenlee, black men accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Florida, in 1949. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their guilty verdicts in 1951, Sheriff Willis McCall picked up Shepard and Irvin from Raiford State Prison to transfer them back to the county. On the way there, McCall pulled to the side of the road and asked the two handcuffed men to change the tire and then shot them both in the chest. He radioed his boss and muttered, “I got rid of them; killed the sons of bitches.” Walter Irvin survived the shooting, but Samuel Shepard died that day.35

In Tallahassee, memories of the “little Scottsboro” case hung over many members of the African American community in 1954 when the state electrocuted Abraham Beard, a seventeen-year-old black youth accused of raping a white woman. Apart from the races of the accuser and the accused, the Beard case featured a cast of characters almost identical to that of the Tallahassee case five years later: an all-white jury had tried and convicted Beard in the same courtroom where Betty Jean Owens faced her attackers. Judge W. May Walker presided, and William D. Hopkins served as the state prosecutor. Harry Michaels, Patrick Scarborough’s attorney in 1959, served as Beard’s court-appointed attorney in 1954. Both the “little Scottsboro” and the Beard cases revealed the extent to which the protection of white women served as the ultimate symbol of white male power and the foundation of white supremacy. When African Americans in Tallahassee demanded equal justice for Betty Jean Owens, that foundation began to crumble.36

News that four white men would actually face prosecution for raping a black woman plunged both whites and blacks into largely unfamiliar territory. It not only highlighted the bitter ironies of segregation and “social equality” but allowed African Americans to publicize them. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, the arraignment made the “arguments for white supremacy, racial discrimination, and segregation fall by the wayside” and the arguments against school desegregation seem “childishly futile.” “Time and again,” another newspaper editor argued, “Southern spokesmen have protested that they oppose integration in the schools only because it foreshadows a total ‘mingling of the races.’ The implication is that Negroes are hell-bent for intimacy, while whites shrink back in horror.” “Perhaps,” the writer argued, “as Lillian Smith and other maverick Southerners have suggested, it is not quite that simple ”37

While prominent members of the white community expressed their shock and horror at the rape, they continued to stumble into old narratives about race and sex. The indictment helped incite age-old fears of miscegenation and stereotypes of the so-called black beast rapist. William H. Chafe argues that “merely evoking the image of ‘miscegenation’ could often suffice to ring the alarm bells that would mobilize a solid phalanx of white resistance to change.” For example, white women around Tallahassee began to speak openly about their “fear of retaliation,” while young white couples avoided parking “in the country moonlight lest some Negroes should be out hunting in a retaliatory mood.” Reflecting this fear as well as the larger concern with social equality, Florida legislators, like other lawmakers throughout the South, passed a series of racist bills designed to segregate children in schools by sex in order to circumvent the Brown v. Board of Education decision and “reduce the chances of interracial marriage.”38 The extent to which the myth of the black beast rapist was a projection of white fears was never clearer than when the gang rape of a black woman conjured up terror of black-on-white rape. The fact that the black community rallied around Betty Jean Owens and her womanhood threatened white male power—making the myth of the black savage a timely political tool.

Black leaders from all over the country eagerly used the rape case for their own political purposes as well. Most focused on the lynching of black men in similar cases, placing the crime against Betty Jean Owens into a larger dialogue about the power struggle between black and white men. As A. D. Williams, a black businessman in Tallahassee, put it, “the white men are on the spot.” Rev. Dennis H. Jamison felt that the indictment of four white men indicated a “better chance at Justice than any involving the races in the South,” but, he added, “still no white men have ever been executed.” Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, expressed this viewpoint forcefully. Using almost the exact same language as white supremacists, he accused the “four devil rapists” of destroying the “virginity of our daughters.” “Appeals for justice,” he fumed, “will avail us nothing. We know there is no justice under the American flag.”39 Nearly all the editorials in major black newspapers echoed his sentiments.

Ella Baker, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), felt that the evidence in the Tallahassee case was so strong that “not even an all white Florida jury could fail to convict.” Reminding whites of their tendency to mete out unequal justice toward black men, she warned, “with memories of Negroes who have been lynched and executed on far less evidence, Negro leaders from all over the South will certainly examine every development in this case. … What will Florida’s answer be?” The New York Amsterdam News called for equal justice, noting that the “law which calls for the death sentence does not say that Negro rapists should be punished by death and white rapists should be allowed to live.” The Pittsburgh Courier bet on acquittal, despite the fact that the case “is as open and shut as a case can be.”40

Martin Luther King Jr., at the annual SCLC meeting in Tallahassee a few days after the indictment, praised the student protesters for giving “hope to all of us who struggle for human dignity and equal justice.” But he tempered his optimism with political savvy, calling on the federal government to force the country to practice what it preached in its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. “Violence in the South can not be deplored or ignored,” King declared, directing his criticism at President Dwight D. Eisenhower; “without effective action, the situation will worsen.”41 King exploited a political context in which America’s racial problems were increasingly an international issue. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcast segments of the Florida A&M University student speeches condemning the rape and racial injustice, while newspapers throughout Europe closely watched the case unfold. “It is ironical that these un-American outrages occur as our representatives confer in Geneva to expand democratic principles … it might well be necessary and expedient, ” King threatened, “to appeal to the conscience of the world through the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations.” This international angle was a strategy shared by mainstream integrationists, leftist radicals, and black nationalists alike. Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, leader of the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women, Inc., petitioned the United Nations Human Rights Commission in person to end the “planned lynch terror and willful destruction of our people.” She tied issues of race, gender, sex, and citizenship together by demanding Justice Department assistance for Betty Jean Owens’s rape case, an FBI investigation of the Mack Charles Parker lynching, and basic voting rights.42

Robert F. Williams, militant leader of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, suggested African Americans stand their ground and defend themselves. The Parker lynching, the Tallahassee rape case, and two Monroe, North Carolina, cases in which white men stood accused of attacking black women forced Williams to defend racial pride and black womanhood. On May 6, 1959, B. F. Shaw, a white railroad engineer, had been exonerated on charges of beating and kicking a black maid at the Hotel Monroe, even though he did not show up for court. That same day, white jurors giggled while Mrs. Mary Ruth Reed, a pregnant black woman, testified that Lewis Medlin, a white mechanic, beat and sexually assaulted her in front of her five children. Medlin’s attorney argued that he was just having a little fun, that he was married to a “lovely white woman … the pure flower of life,” whom he would not dare leave for “that.” The jury deliberated for less than ten minutes before returning the not guilty verdict. It was the defilement of black womanhood and the humiliation of black manhood that inspired Williams to hurl his infamous vow to “meet violence with violence.” His exhortation set off a national controversy, culminating at the 1959 NAACP convention where Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins suspended Williams for his remarks. Williams defended his position by citing the tragedy in Tallahassee. Had the “young black men who escorted the coed who was raped in Tallahassee” been able to defend her, Williams argued, they would have been justified “even though it meant that they themselves or the white rapists were killed.”43

Roy Wilkins shared Williams’s gender and race politics but not his methods for achieving them. In a letter to Florida governor LeRoy Collins, Wilkins invoked the lynchings of Mack Charles Parker and Emmett Till, noting that the victims’ skin color alone kept them from receiving a fair trial and that their deaths threatened political embarrassment at home and abroad. “Full punishment has been certain and swift in cases involving a white victim and a Negro accused,” he said, “but the penalty has neither been certain nor heavy in cases involving a Negro victim and a white accused … for these reasons,” Wilkins warned, “all eyes will be upon the state of Florida.”44

On June 11, 1959, at least four hundred people witnessed Betty Jean Owens face her attackers and testify on her own behalf. Owens approached the witness box with her head bowed. She wore a white embroidered blouse and a black-and-salmon checked skirt with gold earrings. The African American press had cast her in the role of respectable womanhood by characterizing her as a God-fearing, middle-class college co-ed “raised in a hard-working Christian household” with parents devoted to the “simple verities of life that make up the backbone of our democracy.” Unlike white women, who were often able to play the role of “fair maiden” before a lynch mob worked its will on their alleged attackers, Betty Jean Owens had to tell her story knowing that the four white men who raped her might go unpunished. Worse, Owens had to describe the attack in front of hundreds of white people in a segregated institution that inherently denied her humanity.45 Though it may seem unnecessary, even lurid, to bear witness to the details of her testimony today, it is crucial that we hear the same testimony that the jurors heard. Owens’s willingness to identify those who attacked her and to testify against them in public broke the institutional silence surrounding the centuries-long history of white men’s sexual violation of black women, made a white southern judge and jury recognize her womanhood and dignity, and countered efforts to shame or stereotype her as sexually unchaste. As a result, her testimony alone is a momentous event.

Owens remained strong as state prosecutor William Hopkins asked her to detail the attack from the moment she and her friends left the Florida A&M dance. This she did powerfully and emotionally. “We were only parked near Jake Gaither Park for fifteen minutes,” she said, when “four white men pulled up in a 1959 blue Chevrolet.” She identified Patrick Scarborough as the man who pressed the shotgun into her date’s nose and yelled, “Get out and get out now.” When Owens began to cry, David Beagles pressed a “wicked looking foot long knife” to her throat and forced her down to the ground. He then pulled her up, slapped her, and said, “You haven’t anything to worry about.” Owens testified that Beagles pushed her into the car and then “pushed my head down in his lap and yelled at me to be quiet or I would never get home.” “I knew I couldn’t get away,” she stated; “I thought they would kill me if I didn’t do what they wanted me to do.”46

She continued with the horrid details. As the car pulled off the highway and into the woods, “the one with the knife pulled me out of the car and laid me on the ground.” Owens was still wearing the gold and white evening gown as they tugged at the dress and “pulled my panties off.” She pleaded with them to let her go and not hurt her when Beagles slapped her again. She then told how each one raped her while she was “begging them to let me go … I was so scared, but there was nothing I could do with four men, a knife, and a gun … I couldn’t do anything but what they said.” Owens testified that the men eagerly watched one another have intercourse with her the first time around but lost interest during the second round. “Two of them were working on taking the car’s license plate off,” she said, “while the oldest one” offered her some whiskey. “I never had a chance to get away,” she said quietly; “I was on the ground for two or three hours before the one with the knife pushed me back into the car.” After the men had collectively raped her seven times, Ollie Stoutamire and Beagles blindfolded her with a baby diaper and pushed her onto the floorboards of the car, and they all drove away. When she heard the police sirens and felt the car stop, she pulled the blindfold down and began yelling for help. After police ordered the men out of the car, Owens recalled, “I was so scared and weak and nervous that I just fell on the ground and that is the last thing I remember.”47

Betty Jean Owens then described the physical injuries she sustained from the attack. “One arm and one leg,” she said, “were practically useless” to her for several days while she was at the hospital. A nurse had to accompany her to the grand jury hearing a few days after the attack, and she needed medication for severe depression. She also had a large bruise on her breast where the bodice stay from her dress dug into her skin as the four men pressed their bodies into hers. Asking her to identify some of the exhibits, Hopkins flipped open the switchblade used the night of the attack, startling some of the jurors. Immediately the four defense attorneys jumped up and vehemently called for a mistrial, arguing that “by flashing the knife Mr. Hopkins tried to inflame the jury and this prejudiced their clients’ constitutional rights to a fair trial.” Judge Walker denied their motion, signaling Hopkins to continue. When asked whether she consented, Owens clearly told Hopkins and the jury, “No sir, I did not.”48

Defense attorneys grilled Owens for more than an hour, trying to prove that she consented because she never struggled to get away and that she actually enjoyed the sexual encounter. “Didn’t you derive any pleasure from that? Didn’t you?” the attorney Howard Williams yelled repeatedly. He kept pressing her, “Why didn’t you yell or scream out?” “I was afraid they would kill me,” Owens said quietly. She showed signs of anger when Williams repeatedly asked if she was a virgin in an attempt to characterize her as a stereotypical black jezebel. Owens retained her composure, refused to answer questions about her chastity, and resisted efforts to shame her. The defense made a last-ditch effort to discredit Owens by arguing that, if the young men had actually raped her and threatened her life, she would have sustained more severe injuries.49

Proceeding with the state’s case, William Hopkins called the doctors, both black and white, who examined Owens after the attack. They told the jury that they found her in a terrible condition and that she “definitely had sexual relations” that caused the injuries that required a five-day hospital stay. Richard Brown, Thomas Butterfield, and Edna Richardson took the stand next. They all corroborated Owens’s testimony, adding that after the attack Owens was “crying, hysterical, and jerking all over.” Brown testified that Scarborough pointed the shotgun into his car window and ordered him and Butterfield to kneel in front of its headlights. Defense attorney John Rudd asked Brown on cross-examination, was it a “single or double barrel shotgun they pointed into your car?” Brown replied, “I only saw one barrel, sir.” Laughter rolled down from the balcony, upsetting Rudd. “I can not work with this duress and disorder at my back, a boy’s life is at stake here!” Judge Walker called for order and reprimanded the spectators.50 When the prosecution finally rested its case at 8:30 p.m. on June 11, defense attorneys moved for a directed verdict of acquittal, claiming the state failed to prove anything except sexual intercourse. Judge Walker vigorously denied the motion and insisted the defense return the next day to present their defense.

Amid a sea of people in the tiny courtroom, David Beagles, an eighteen-year-old high school student, sat rigidly on the stand, pushing a ring back and forth on his finger as he answered questions from his attorney. His mother buried her head in her arms as she listened to her son tell the jury his side of the story. Beagles testified that he had a knife and William Collinsworth had a shotgun. The four of them were out “looking around for Negroes who had been parking near Collinsworth’s neighborhood and bothering them.” When they came upon the Florida A&M students, Beagles admitted holding the switchblade but then said he put it away when he saw they were dressed in formal wear. He admitted that they ordered Brown and Butterfield to drive away but insisted that he “asked the girls to get into the car.” He denied the rape, arguing that Owens consented and even asked them to take her “back to school to change her dress.” Under cross-examination, Beagles admitted that he “pushed her, just once … not hard,” into the car, that he said, “If you do what we want you to, we’ll let you go,” and that he blindfolded her with a diaper after the attack. Defense attorney Howard Williams then asked Judge Walker to remove the jury as Beagles detailed the confession he made the night of the crime. Williams argued that when police officers arrested the young men, they “were still groggy from a night of drinking,” making their confessions inadmissible. Under Hopkins’s cross-examination, however, Beagles admitted that he was not pressured to say anything, that his confession was voluntary, and that he actually looked over the written statement and made an adjustment.51

Patrick Scarborough, who admitted that he was married to a woman in Texas, testified that he had intercourse with Owens twice but emphatically denied using force. When Hopkins questioned him, Scarborough admitted that Owens pleaded, “please don’t hurt me,” but he insisted that she offered “no resistance.” He denied kissing her at first and then said he kissed her on the neck while he had sex with her.52

Defense attorneys focused on discrediting Owens instead of defending their clients because the prosecution repeatedly drew self-incriminating information from them. State prosecutor Hopkins argued that “they simply have no defense.” Defense attorneys tried to use each man’s ignorance to prove his innocence, highlighting their low IQ’s and poor educations. When that failed, they detailed the dysfunctional histories of each defendant, as though to diminish the viciousness of the crime by offering a rationale for the men’s depravity. Character witnesses for William Collinsworth, for example, described his sordid home life and drinking problem. Nearly every member of Collinsworth’s family took the stand, spilling sorrowful stories about their poverty and dysfunction. His sister, Maudine Reeves, broke down on the stand and had to be rushed to the hospital. His wife, Pearlie, told the jury through sobs and tears that he was “not himself when he was drunk,” but when he was sober “you couldn’t ask for a better husband.” On the stand, she failed to mention what her letter to the judge had made explicit: that her husband regularly beat her. When that did not seem to work, defense attorneys switched gears and attempted to portray their clients as reputable young men who were incapable of rape. Friends and family members all testified that these young men “were good boys,” and that in particular Ollie Stoutamire, a cousin of Tallahassee police chief Frank Stoutamire, had “nothing but pure and moral intentions ”53

Finally, the defense appealed to the jury’s prejudices. Collinsworth blamed his actions on the “Indian blood” pulsing through his veins; the Pensacola psychiatrist Dr. W. M. C. Wilhoit backed him up when he argued, “It is a known fact that individuals of the Indian race react violently and primitively when psychotic or intoxicated.” When Collinsworth added alcohol to his “Indian blood,” Wilhoit argued, “he was unable to discern the nature and quality of the crime in question.” The attorney for Ollie Stoutamire, city judge John Rudd, blamed “outside agitators.” The defendants are “being publicized and ridiculed to satisfy sadists and people in other places,” Rudd yelled during closing arguments. “Look at that little skinny, long legged sixteen-year-old boy. Does he look like a mad rapist who should die … should we kill or incarcerate that little boy because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?”54

In their summations to the jury, defense attorneys S. Gunter Toney and Harry Michaels followed Rudd’s lead. Michaels insisted that “the crime here is insignificant … the pressure, clamor, and furor are completely out of proportion.” Pointing to Scarborough, Michaels told the jury, “his motives, intentions, and designs that night were wholesome, innocent and decent.” The fact that Owens could “have easily walked ten feet into the woods where nobody could find her,” Michaels said, proved she consented. Waving her gold and white gown in front of the jury, he pointed out that it was “not soiled or torn,” which he said proved no brutality was involved. Finally, he called for an acquittal, arguing that the jury could not possibly convict on the basis of “only one witness—the victim, and confessions that admitted only one fact—sexual intercourse.” Sitting in the segregated balcony, Charles U. Smith, a sociologist at Florida A&M University, said he gasped when he heard Howard Williams yell, “Are you going to believe this nigger wench over these four boys?”55

In his summation, prosecuting attorney William Hopkins jumped up, grabbed the shotgun and Betty Jean Owens’s prom dress, and appealed to the jury for a conviction.

Suppose two colored boys and their moron friends attacked Mrs. Beagles’ daughter … had taken her at gunpoint from a car and forced her into a secluded place and regardless of whether they secured her consent or not, had intercourse with her seven times, leaving her in such a condition that she collapsed and had to be hospitalized?

Betty Jean Owens, he said, “didn’t have a chance in the world with four big boys, a loaded gun and a knife. She was within an inch of losing her life … she was gangraped SEVEN times.” “When you get to the question of mercy,” he told the jury, “consider that they wouldn’t even let that little girl whimper.”56

Restless spectators, squeezed into every corner of the segregated courthouse, piled back into their seats when jurors emerged after three hours of deliberation with a decision. An additional three hundred African Americans held a silent vigil outside. A. H. King, the jury foreman and a local plantation owner, slowly read aloud the jury’s decision for all four defendants: “guilty with a recommendation for mercy.” The recommendation for mercy saved the four men from the electric chair and, according to the Baltimore Afro-American, “made it inescapably clear that the death penalty for rape is only for colored men accused by white women.” A. H. King defended the mercy ruling by arguing that “there was no brutality involved” and insisted, implausibly enough, that the decision would have been the same “if the defendants had been four Negroes.”57 Judge Walker deferred sentencing for fifteen days, cleared the courtroom, and sent the four white men to Raiford prison.

Part 2 follows.

1 Comment

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One response to ““IT WAS LIKE ALL OF US HAD BEEN RAPED”: SEXUAL VIOLENCE, COMMUNITY MOBILIZATION, AND THE AFRICAN AMERICAN FREEDOM STRUGGLE: PART 1

  1. Queen

    So sad this story is and some of white America wants black America to act like nothing has happen. I will never forget !!!!

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