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
Danielle L. McGuire,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York
Rosa Parks is often referred to as the Mother of the modern civil rights movement. Historically she has been depicted as a prim, virtuous, diminutive lady who was merely too tired after a long day at work to move from her seat. Had she been Catholic she surely would have been canonized by now; St. Rosa, the patron saint of bus riders. Forty-two years old at the time of the bus boycott, she was described by Martin Luther King Jr, as “. . the victim–emphasis mine–of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny. She had been tracked down by the Zeitgeist–the spirit of the times.”

Rosa Parks, however, was no victim of anything. She and other black women had long complained about the racist treatment they received on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. That treatment included rape and other sexual violence. In 1943 Parks argued with James F. Blake, the very same bus driver who had her arrested on that fateful day, because she refused to exit the bus and reenter by the rear door after she had paid her fare. That same year she joined the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was elected secretary. The job found her interviewing and documenting incidents of sexual violence against black women throughout rural Alabama. By the time she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to vacate her seat, she was an experienced, intrepid reporter for the organization having investigated scores of cases voter intimidation, sexual violence, beatings and other atrocities committed by whites against blacks, especially black women, in Alabama.

Perhaps the most infamous case reported in At the Dark End of the Street was the brutal gang rape and beating of the young wife and mother Recy Taylor, of Abbeville, Alabama, by six white men armed with knives and guns. Taylor, Fannie Daniel and West Daniel, the eighteen-year-old son of Fannie Daniel, were walking home from church late at night when they noticed that a car of young white males had passed them several times. The car finally stopped and seven men got out. Claiming that Taylor had assaulted a white man earlier in the day and they were taking her to be identified, they kidnapped her and drove her into the woods where six of the men took turns raping her. After helping her dress and blindfolding her, the men drove Taylor to the highway and dropped her off, cautioning her not to move until they disappeared. When E. D. Nixon, the president of the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was contacted several days after the brutal assault, he assigned the case to Rosa Parks. She in turn formed the Committee for Equal Justice, the seeds of which bore the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Montgomery bus boycott more than a decade later.

What happened to Taylor was not unusual. White men had long taken sexual liberties with black women; the practice could be traced back to slavery. Black women knew that their bodies were not their own. McGuire reminds the reader that virtually the entire philosophy of white supremacy rested on sexual violence against black women. As the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal stated in his landmark study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, “Sex is the principle around which the whole structure of segregation. . .is organized.” Interracial rape was a potent weapon in the war known as Jim Crow for it allowed white men to control the bodies and lives of black women, and thus the entire black community. Reporting the savage crime could mean death–especially for black men who dared to protect and avenge their female loved ones.

At the Dark End of the Street is the first book to connect black women’s long struggle against rape and other sexual violence to the very roots of the modern civil rights movement. By refusing to cower in shame and remain silent because they had been raped, black women struck a powerful blow to southern apartheid. According to McGuire, “Between 1940 and 1975, sexual violence and interracial rape became one crucial battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy.” Even though the white community responded with a virulent campaign of sexual terror, slander against black women and fervent calls against miscegenation, black women’s protests and resistance helped knock the doctrine of white supremacy to its knees.

Equal parts history, detective story and celebration, At the Dark End of the Street is a Pulitzer Prize-worthy book. It places black women at the very center of African Americans’ struggle for equal rights, dignity and personhood. It rescues from the dustbin of history the stories of Recy Taylor–who just recently received an official policy from the state of Alabama–and every other black women who was a victim of sexual exploitation and violence, especially in the South. And most of all, McGuire reminds us of that the real Rosa Parks was a fierce race woman of extraordinary fortitude and so much more seminal than history has portrayed her.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.