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Black History Month

Rosa Parks: Women’s Rights Activist

Long revered as a civil rights icon, Rosa Parks is best known for sparking the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks’s refusal to move on that iconic bus was more than an act of racial justice. She understood that women were unsafe in the back of a bus; she refused to move as an act of resistance, knowing that sexual violence against Black women was pervasive and accepted by the mainstream culture.

Twelve years earlier, Rosa Parks had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Upon joining the NAACP, she focused on advocacy efforts for the Black community in Alabama, including efforts to make sure Black sexual violence survivors received their rightful day in court. Escaping her own attempted sexual assault by a white neighbor, she was once quoted as saying,

“ I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never.” 

Rosa Parks’s passion for justice in sexual violence cases brought her to Abbeville, Alabama in the fall of 1944. Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped and assaulted by a group of men. When the NAACP learned of the incident, they sent Rosa Parks as an investigator. Segregation and white supremacy permeated every area of life in 1940’s Alabama, a milieu not unlike many other parts of our nation. When Rosa Parks found an unfriendly welcome in Abbeville, she drew on her own resilience and co-founded the Committee for Equal Justice for Ms. Recy Taylor. Rosa Parks played a large role in bringing national attention to the case, kindling the fire of civil rights around the nation. We can draw a direct line from Recy Taylor’s case to the Civil Rights Movement and then to the Me Too Movement. We owe a debt of gratitude to Rosa Parks in the role she played in both civil rights and justice for sexual violence survivors.

Mrs. Parks dedicated her life to activism and other social justice causes. On October 25, 2005 Mrs. Parks Passed away at the age of 92. May we honor her memory with each act to end sexual violence and each act to end racial injustice. 

 

Sojourner Truth: Activist and Orator

Sojourner Truth lived as an enslaved Black woman for most of her young adult life until a New York statute declared in 1817 that all enslaved Black people would be free by July 4, 1827. Growing up as an enslaved Black girl, and in a rural town, Sojourner was never given the opportunity to attend missionary school to learn to read and write. It was not illegal to teach enslaved Black people during this time, although it was uncommon and typically occurred in more populated cities like New York City or Albany. Sojourner never did learn to read and write, but was a skilled orator who captivated audiences. Upon legally being granted her freedom, Sojourner was an avid abolitionist whose focus was on issues such as property rights, prison reform, capital punishment, and women’s suffrage. Sojourner teamed together with other activists to help add more power to the abolitionist movement including Frederick Douglass, even though they had differing ideas on how to help newly freed Black people during the time of Reconstruction. Partnerships like this one added even more power to the work of social justice as they continued to give speeches across the United States fighting for equal rights. 

Sojourner Truth gave her now-famous speech, Ain’t I a Woman, in 1851 at the Ohio Rights Convention. In 2021, 170 years later, we see the relevancy of her words as they echo down the streets where we see police violence towards Black bodies. Ain’t I a Woman, cries Breonna Taylor, Ain’t I a Woman, cries Sandra Bland. Ain’t I a Woman, cry the many Black women whose lives have been cut short in recent years.

 

Ain’t I a Woman?

 

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

 

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

 

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

 

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

 

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.

 

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

Sojourner Truth’s words speak to women of color today, too. This speech focuses not only on sexism but also racism within the feminist movement. All women should be treated equally to each other, and equally to men. The struggle of Black women finding their place as Black women within feminism and as feminist women within the Black community is an ongoing struggle, as we see in bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Sojourner Truth was a bold, brave woman who was not afraid to speak her mind against the injustices of the time. She overcame many obstacles in her life and made waves with her powerful words that battled patriarchy and racism.

Frances Thompson: Honoring Black Survivors Who Forged the Path Before Us

During the Memphis Riots in 1866, Frances Thompson and her roommate Lucy Smith were attacked in their home. At the time of the attack, Frances and Lucy were formerly enslaved Black women, now living freely working as seamstresses. Both of these women, along with four other Black women– Mary Walker, Mollie Davis, Ellen Brown, and Lucy Hunt– bravely testified before congress in the aftermath of the Memphis Riots for various reasons. Ms. Thompson’s testimony was thrown out ten years later as, after an arrest and medical examination, it was publicized that Ms. Thompson was a transgender woman in The Pulaski Citizen, the daily newspaper. Unable to pay the fine, Ms. Thompson was thrown in jail and sent out on the chain gang– when prisoners were chained together in order to complete physical tasks. In the testimony provided, Ms. Thompson describes having a cancer in her foot and being unable to walk without crutches. From then on, Ms. Thompson’s identity was used to discredit her testimony of what happened years earlier during the riots.  

Sexual assault survivors too often have their stories doubted. It is not easy for survivors to provide testimony against their perpetrators, still to this day. Survivors are not believed, and it is important to take into account their identities and how this affects their ability to heal, and be believed. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the feminist term, intersectionality, which references the way in which our identities (race, gender, class, sex, ability, sexuality, etc.) can affect one another and further discrimination or increase privilege. With Frances Thompson, there are many intersections of her identity that lead to further discrimination and we can see that in the wrongful and forced publication in regards to her transgender identity as well as her living with a disability. People no longer believed her and began to use incorrect pronouns among other forms of verbal and physical abuse. Frances Thompson was a brave woman who testified against her perpetrators in 1866, and we look toward her as a woman of strength in this fight against sexual assault. 

If you are interested in reading Ms. Thompson’s testimony, you can find it here on pages 196-197. To read the article clipping from The Pulaski Citizen, click here.

From Memphis to Combahee: The Rape Crisis Movement Owes Everything to Black Women

Somewhere right now, there is a white girl telling a white boy no. She understands consent. She communicates clearly. She understands her rights and creates healthy boundaries. What she most likely does not know is how much she owes to Black women. 

Every day, rape crisis centers offer prevention sessions, public education, crisis support, medical advocacy, legal advocacy, and counseling, all in an effort to end sexual abuse. We fight the oppression of individuals in intimate violence situations, but we are fighting oppression on a larger scale as well. If we as a society do not abolish the oppression of the Black community, we will never abolish oppression in the form of sexual assault. Kimbelerlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, to capture the way that our identities may combine and add to our privilege or oppression. At Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center, we strive to keep the role of Black women central in our work, as they have established and guided the rape crisis movement from the beginning.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Black women who testified before Congress after the 1866 Memphis Race Riot, to Rosa Parks who fought to end sexual assault, to the Combahee River Collective begun in 1974, to Tarana Burke who initiated the Me Too Movement in 2007, and to countless others. The work of ending sexual violence has always been closely intertwined with class and racial justice, the intersectionality that Black women moved forward and continue to move forward today.

Join us each week this month as we highlight the contributions of Black women to the rape crisis movement, including Frances Thompson, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks. 

 

For further reading:

  • How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. (2017). By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (2007). By Audre Lorde
  • Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. (2011). By Crystal N. Feimster
  • At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance– A New History of the Civil Rights Movment from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. (2011). By Danielle L. McGuire
  • Between the World and Me. (2015). By Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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