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Digging deeper

It was the winter of 1998. I was in the process of researching the 1959 gang-rape of Betty Jean Owens, a black college student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, when I kept coming across similar cases of white men attacking black women throughout the Deep South. I knew this was common during slavery, but I did not know it continued throughout the Jim Crow period. Anyway, it seemed as if every front page of every black newspaper between 1940 and 1950 featured the same story: a black woman was walking home from school, work or church when a group of white men abducted her at gunpoint, took her outside of town and brutally assaulted her. I began digging through court files and the evidence showed that white on black rape was endemic in the segregated South. Black women were vulnerable to racial and sexual violence and they often testified about their experiences–in churches, courtrooms, and congressional hearings. Their testimonies often led to civil rights campaigns that began with a simple demand for justice and became a struggle for human rights and human dignity. This was true in Montgomery as well as other major movement centers. I had read nearly all the books about the civil rights movement and I had never heard anything about these campaigns. It seemed that black women had been telling their stories for years and no one was listening.

It would take me some time to figure out how Gertrude Perkins, raped by two white police officers in Montgomery in 1949, was connected to the Montgomery bus boycott. But slowly, the evidence started to tell a larger and more interesting story.