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Letters for Betty Jean Owens

Last night I spoke with Betty Jean Owens’s grandson, Amonte Martin. He and I talked over the past decade–first when my Journal of American History article came out and since my book was released in 2010.

We chatted about history, family and especially the health and well-being of his grandmother, Betty Jean Owens, who was abducted and brutally raped by four white men in Tallahassee, Florida in 1959.

Students at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee demand justice for victim of racist sexual attack.

Florida A&M students rally in Tallahassee to demand justice for victim of rape.

Ms. Owens’ bold testimony in front of an all-white, all-male jury in a segregated courtroom was a major catalyst for the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement.

She testified about sexual assault before anyone held speak outs, took back the night, or said #MeToo. Her courage to speak out, in spite of the odds stacked against black women and girls like her in the Jim Crow south, inspired me when I first began to study history and continues to inspire me today.


Her grandson asked me if we could coordinate a letter-writing campaign for his grandmother. Basically we write letters to Betty Jean Owens about how her refusal to be silenced and dismissed in 1959 inspires us; how her testimony made it possible for others to speak out; and/or how her resistance to (racialized) sexual violence remains an inspiration to survivors everywhere, especially women of color who are [STILL] too often silenced, ignored or dismissed.

Female FAMU students protest segregation

Student activists at FAMU in early 1960s.

All you have to do is write Ms. Owens a quick letter via email. We will collect them, edit for grammar and concision, and present them to her on her birthday in February/March 2019.

I would be so honored if you would do this for me and for Betty Jean Owens and her family. You can send your love note to: letter2betty@gmail.com

As an aside, I helped coordinate a letter-writing campaign to Michigan Asst. Attorney General Angela Povilaitis last February after she successfully prosecuted Larry Nassar.

She is a friend and neighbor and I knew that she poured her heart and soul into that case –(making it possible, for example, for more than 100 survivors to make impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing hearing). She believed them, treated them with dignity and respect, and truly gave her all. But the work took an emotional toll on her–(all that trauma, all those horror stories, all the tears, and the regaining of survivors’ power and personal dignity, the shedding of shame etc.) It was a lot to process. I thought it would be nice to send her “love” notes on Valentines Day–like the #SurvivorLoveLetter–to let her know that it was not in vain and that we saw her and her work and it made a difference beyond the courtroom. Hundreds of letters came in. When we delivered them, she was so surprised and moved, she began to cry. So did we. It felt really good to say thank you and to show our pride and affection for her and her work.

Amonte Martin and I would love to be able to do something similar for his grandmother, Betty Jean Owens, who is an unsung civil rights and women’s rights heroine.

Can you help us? Write to: letter2betty@gmail.com

Thank you!