In May 1959, four white men kidnapped and raped an African American college student in Tallahassee Florida. When her classmates at Florida A & M University found out about what happened, they mobilized and demanded justice. Their public protests helped force the local prosecutor to charge the assailants with rape and bring them to trial.
Standing before a segregated Jim Crow courtroom in Tallahassee, the victim’s quiet, but defiant testimony helped convince the all-white, all-male jurors to deliver a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced the four men to life in prison, a first for the South.
The Tallahassee verdict was a major break from the past. From slavery through the bulk of the 20th century, white men assaulted and raped black women with impunity. The conviction and life sentences sent a powerful message. For the first time since Reconstruction, Black women could imagine state power being used to protect them AND hold white men accountable for their actions.
The verdict also drew attention to Florida’s history of unequal sentencing in rape cases. At the time, there were many black men on death row for “attempted rape” or even looking at a white woman the wrong way. This case helped the NAACP Legal Defense team focus on unequal sentencing, an issue that continues to matter today.
And the Tallahassee case helped lead to convictions elsewhere that summer as well as throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Read more about this case and get all the details in my book, 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.
Also, Rosalind Bentley, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote a great essay about the Tallahassee case for Black History Month. It’s worth a read.