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A new history of the civil rights movement

One of the questions I always get is: “why hasn’t this story been told in other histories of the civil rights movement?”

I am not sure I know the “correct” answer. I think there are a couple of reasons why most major studies of the freedom struggle ignore the issue of sexualized racial violence. First, I think our own discomfort and silences surrounding sexual violence hinder our work as historians. For example, we don’t ask civil rights veterans questions about rape or other kinds of sexual violence because we assume they don’t want to talk about it. We assume silence, even though many black women testified about these crimes in the past.

When I interviewed black women in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina, nearly all of them spoke freely about sexual violence and sexual harassment when I asked about it. Many were happy that someone was finally asking about something they felt deserved attention and had been ignored. Many of the male civil rights veterans I spoke with also spoke freely about their own feelings regarding white men attacking black women. The only time I felt I had crossed a line was when I asked a veteran of the Selma movement about sexual violence and she scolded me because there were children present. She talked freely about it later, however.

One of the survivors I spoke with started telling her story before I even got around to asking about it. I was asking other questions—“warming up,” so to speak. And she just looked right at the camera and said, “I’ll tell you what happened…” I was a little embarrassed that I was tiptoeing around the issue and she was eager to tell her story.

Second, I think historians have tended to focus on prominent civil rights organizations like the NAACP , SNCC, and SCLC; nationally recognized “leaders” like Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, etc; major campaigns like the 1955-56 bus boycott in Montgomery, King’s 1963 Birmingham campaign, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, or the 1965 voting rights march in Selma; and the role of Congress and the President in passing laws to advance African American equality.

And, when there is a focus on racial violence, it is almost always directed at black men. Historians have assumed that black women were safer and less vulnerable to racial violence than black men. And that may be true in cases of lynching, through black women were certainly lynch victims, but not when we look at sexual violence.

There have been some really great studies of grassroots movements that highlight the organizing of local people–like the work of John Dittmer, Charles Payne, Christina Greene (to name a few)–that expand our understanding of the African American freedom struggle. These studies certainly helped me rethink the movement as a whole and encouraged many of us to think about the human side of the movement. I hope that my book helps us move toward a more thorough understanding of the movement as a whole.