10 Groundbreaking Cases You've Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement

Scarlett Mansfield - January 5, 2018

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
County Court House in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo credit: CourtHouseHistory.com.

Gertrude Perkins (1949, Montgomery, Alabama)

In Montgomery, Alabama in 1949 a twenty-five-year-old black woman named Gertrude Perkins was walking home from a bus stop when she was confronted by two uniformed white policemen. These men forced her into the marked police car, drove her to a secluded area, and raped her. After several hours, the policemen returned her to the bus stop and warned her to keep quiet.

Gertrude faced the dilemma of whether to inform the police of an atrocity committed by their own men. Instead of going home that night, she headed to Reverend Seay’s house, a minister of the AME Zion Church nearby. He wrote down everything she said and a radio address hit the country early the next morning with details of the event. Seay then escorted Gertrude to the police station so that she could report her crime and they could arrest her assailants. The police, however, refused to hold a line up for her to identify her attackers. Further, the police commissioner refused to provide details of who was on duty that night.

As word spread, several black activist organizations formed the Citizens Committee for Gertrude Perkins. Citywide protest eventually ensued. White officials, however, dismissed Gertrude’s case and the rape charge as fictitious. When Gertrude finally got her day in court, she looked a far cry from the drunken illiterate yob that white locals had made her out to be. However, as with the previous two cases, an all-white, all-male jury refused to indict anyone claiming there was no evidence of rape in the case.

While most black Americans were understandably frustrated by the outcome of the case, many were pleased with the unrest their protests yielded. Further, it was one of the first times in the city that ministers were also shaken up. This collective action showed that the black people in the town would protest ill-treatment of their race and the wider miscarriage of justice.

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
Claudette Colvin pictured alongside a news article from the time. Photo Credit: Indian Country Media Network.

Claudette Colvin (1955, Montgomery, Alabama)

Most people have heard of Rosa Parks, but what about Claudette Colvin? On the 2nd of March, 1955, nine months prior to Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became a little-known but pioneering figure of the Civil Rights Movement. After refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, police arrested the young girl.

A member of the NAACP Youth Council, and actively learning about the civil rights movement, Claudette was on her way home from the segregated Booker T. Washington High School. Convention held that if the bus became so crowded that the “white seats” at the front half of the bus were filled, and a white person was standing, then African Americans were supposed to get up from the seats at the front and move to the back. If there were no free seats, then African Americans had to stand.

On the 2nd of March, a white woman got on the bus and was left standing. The driver, Robert W. Cleere, told Colvin and three other black women to move to the back of the bus but Colvin refused. After several requests, Colvin repeatedly refused and the driver called the police. She was then handcuffed, forcibly removed from the bus, and arrested by two policemen. She began shouting that her constitutional rights were being violated.

A juvenile court case convicted Colvin of violating segregation laws, assault, and disturbing the peace. The court issued her a fine and sparked community outrage. Her Reverend bailed her out and told her that she brought the Revolution to Montgomery. Together with four other plaintiffs, Claudette Colvin became a part of Browder v Gayle (1956). The case determined bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional. Despite going all the way to the federal Supreme Court, the Court upheld the decision and forced the state to end bus segregation permanently. This helped add further teeth to the Brown vs Board of Education decision that ultimately desegregated schools too.

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
Rosa Parks in Montgomery Police Department. Photo Credit: Huffington Post.

Rosa Parks (1955, Montgomery, Alabama)

The stereotypical image of Rosa Parks sees her a symbol of virtuous black womanhood. Rosa is an honest, well-mannered, old woman who simply could not muster the courage to stand. As a grandmotherly figure, all sexual aspects of her character are removed. In the boycott campaign that followed, Jo Ann Robinson, one of its leaders, played on the idea of the historic destruction of black families, stating: “Next time it may be you, or your daughter, or your mother”. The United States Congress called her the “mother of the freedom movement”. Rosa Parks became a quiet victim and a solemn symbol.

What this misses, however, is that public memory has wiped her history as a defiant activist. As I mentioned earlier in the Recy Taylor case, Rosa actually worked for the NAACP. In her capacity as secretary of the NAACP, Rosa investigated the rape, and, along with other activists, organized the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. She also helped work on the case attempting to bring justice to those men that murdered Emmet Till. Till was a fourteen-year-old African-American lynched by a community in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman said she was offended by him in her family’s grocery store. Rosa thus worked relentlessly to ensure justice for other African-Americans.

Rosa Parks was in fact only forty-two-years-old when she refused to stand on a bus She paid her fare, sat in an empty seat in the first row of the back seats reserved for black Americans. When more white Americans boarded the bus, the driver moved the sign for ‘coloured’ people back a row. Rosa refused to move. Later, talking about the event, she recalls “I thought of Emmet Till and I just couldn’t go back”. It was not old age that had her feeling weary, it was a defiant move.

The driver called the police to arrest Parks. The police charged Parks with a violation of chapter six, section eleven of the segregation law of the Montgomery City code. The president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Edgar Nixon, and the leader of the Pullman Porters Union, Clifford Durr, bailed her out of jail that same evening. Nixon then contacted Jo Ann Robinson, member of the Women’s Political Council, about Rosa’s case. Acknowledging the respectable nature of Rosa Parks, Robinson believed that now was the time to seize the opportunity and rally around a figure that nobody could possibly object to.

On Sunday, 4th December 1955, black churches in the area, and the Montgomery Advertiser spread the word of the plans for a Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott called for respectful treatment, black drivers, and for the middle of the bus seating to be handled on a first-come basis. The next day, the court charged Parks with disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. They fined her $10 and $4 in court costs. Parks appealed her convicted and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. Rosa Parks became a monumental catalyst in the fight for civil rights. She raised international awareness of the plight they faced and helped to build the movement further.

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
News article about the Kissing Case. Photo Credit: Ron’s American World Website.

James Thompson and David Simpson: The Kissing Case (1958, Monroe, North Carolina)

In 1958, Monroe, North Carolina, two young African-American boys were charged with rape. What was their crime? Kissing a white girl of a similar age on the cheek. The young girl, Sissy Marcus, told her mother she kissed nine-year-old James Thompson and seven-year-old David Simpson on the cheek. Her mother became furious and phoned the police explaining how the boys raped her daughter.

Local officials unlawfully detained the two young boys for a week. They refused to allow their parents visitations and refused to allow legal counsel. In an attempt to extract a confession, the police beat both the boys and threatened them with further injury. After spending three months in jail, Juvenile Judge Hampton Price charged and convicted the boys of molestation. Both boys were sentenced to reform school, ideally until the age of twenty-one.

The wider context of this case helps explain, though not justify, the severity of their sentencing. With the end of World War Two, many black men served the United States during the War and resented the idea they would then return home and submit to being a second-class citizen. Owing to the complexity of the contemporary period, no judge in North Carolina would overrule Price for fear of generating further unrest during this volatile time. Members of the local Ku Klux Klan burned crosses into the lawns of the boys’ family houses, and some even shot at the house. The boys’ mothers were fired from their jobs, and the NAACP had to relocate them to nearby towns to help ensure their safety.

After a photograph of the boys with bruising appeared showing them reuniting with their mother, an international outcry ensued. Demonstrations then occurred all of the US, but also against the US in cities including Rome, Paris, Rotterdam, and Vienna. The US government suffered international embarrassment. Furthermore, in February 1959, North Carolina officials requested that the boys’ mothers sign a waiver to release their children. Signing, however, admitted the boys were guilty of the charges. Consequently, both refused. Two days later though, after three months in detention, the governor pardoned both boys without conditions or explanation. To this day, neither the city or the state have apologized to the boys for their treatment.

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
News article relating to the arrest of four men for the rape of Betty Jean Owens. Photo Credit: Alchetron.

Betty Jean Owens (1959, Tallahassee, Florida)

On the 2nd of May, 1959, Betty Jean Owens sat in a car with two African-American men and one other African-American female. All were students at Florida A&M University. Four white men, William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, David Beagles, and Patrick Scarborough, approached the car at Jake Gaither Park. Armed with switchblades and shotguns, the men ordered all of them out of the car. The black men were forced to kneel and then made to drive away. The two black women were left with these four white men. One of the women, Edna Richardson, broke free of the men and ran into a nearby park, leaving Betty Jean Owens alone.

Driving her to the edge of town, the men subsequently raped her seven times. During this time, the three other African-American students that were in the car with her went to the police station to report the evening’s events. The officer that night, nineteen-year-old Joe Cook Jr, surprisingly called for back-up and searched for Owens. A chase with the assailant’s car ensued and they were eventually pulled over. Owens was bound and gagged on the backseat floor. Police then arrested the four white men and took them to jail. They joked and laughed along the way, sure that nobody would care what they had done. All men confessed, in writing, to having abducted Betty at gunpoint and raping her.

When students at A&M heard what happened, groups began to plan protests to demand justice for Owens. As a result of these protests, wide media coverage, and a threat to boycott classes, Judge W. Walker called together a grand jury into special session four days after the attack, on the 6th May 1959. More than two-hundred black spectators entered the courtroom that day to watch the trail. All four men pleaded innocent, making a jury trial mandatory. This became the first time in Florida that white defendants, charged with raping a black woman, were sent to jail to await their trail.

On the 12th June 1959, Betty Jean Owens told the jury, and four-hundred witnesses, what happened that evening. The defense tried to present the men as respectable, and characterize Owens as a whore that wanted sex. The jury found the men guilty but asked for a recommendation for mercy. This latter part of the sentence ensured the four men would not face the electric chair. They were, however, sentenced to life in prison.

Five years later, David Beagles was paroled. Four years after his release, he tracked down a black American woman that he thought was Betty Jean Owens. He murdered her and buried her in a shallow grave. It turns out, however, he murdered a woman named Betty Jean Robinson Houston, a different lady.

The ordeal faced by Betty Jean Owens presented another key turning point in the rights of black women to reclaim their bodies. While it showed a lot of progress in that white men were now accountable for their actions against white women, there was still progress to be made as it appeared only a black man would gain the death penalty of rape. Overall though, local issues and a political mobilized African-American middle class, combined with media attention, created pressure for change.

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
Hattiesburg/ Forrest County Mississippi courthouse. Photo Credit: Flickr.

Rosa Lee Coates (1965, Hattiesburg, Mississippi)

On the 13th July 1965, a white man named Norman Cannon offered an African-American fifteen-year-old girl named Rosa Lee Coates a job babysitting. Upon accepting the position, Norman drove Rosa to the woods nearby and, at knife-point, raped her. He then drove away and left her stranded in the woods. Fortunately, a man found Rosa wandering along Highway 49 and instantly drove her to hospital. Here, Rosa informed the police and her grandmother what happened. Rosa picked Bannon out of a line-up and the police notified the district attorney, James Finch, about the crime.

After debating the ramifications of prosecuting Norman Cannon, city officials decided to file charges against him. Four days after the attack, on the 17th of July, the Forrest County grand jury indicted Norman Cannon and sent him to the county jail to await trial. He pled innocent on November 9th and claimed though he had sex with the girl, he did not use any force and that he should not be prosecuted because he just wanted to have an interracial sexual experience.

After Rosa gave her version of events, a jury sentenced Norman Canon to life in prison. Again, however, the jury recommended mercy. They believed because he did not inflict brutality, his life should be spared. Though some were angered by the lack of a death sentence, it was the first time in Mississippi since reconstruction, a state particularly renowned for its anti-black sentiment, that a jury sentenced a white man to life in prison for raping a black female.

His sentence, however, as highlighted by Professor Danielle McGuire, should not be seen as the most important aspect of this trial. Rather, his guilty conviction shows how decades of black women’s testimony of rape and sexual assault, combined with the years of campaigning to protect black women from sexual attack, finally yielded results.

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
Protestors asking for the release of Joan Little. Photo Credit: AAIHS.

Joan Little (1974, Washington, North Carolina)

The case of Joan Little became a cause of celebration for those in the civil rights, feminist, and anti-death penalty movements. Joan Little dropped out of high school with no diploma aged fifteen. Aged twenty, after a spate of criminal offenses, police arrested Joan Little for three separate counts of felony breaking and entering, and larceny. On the 4th of June, 1974, a court convicted Little.

Three months later, on the 27th August 1974, police discovered the body of jailer Clarence Alligood. Found on Joan Little’s bunk, Clarence was naked from the waist down and had semen on his leg. He suffered stab wounds made by an ice-pick to his temple and heart. Most shocking of all, however, Joan Little was missing. Over a week later she turned herself in to North Carolina authorities and admitted to killing Alligood while defending herself against sexual assault.

The court charged Joan Little with first-degree murder. This charge carried an automatic death sentence. However, her case generated a lot of attention. The amount of death penalty cases in North Carolina attracted the attention of anti-death penalty advocates. Further, the gender component attracted second-wave feminists. Finally, the racial component thus drew the attention of civil rights activities. Together, a Joan Little Defence Committee raised over $350,000 to help her get the best lawyers and advice possible.

At trial, the prosecution argued Little simply seduced Alligood just to murder him and escape. Little, however, testified that Alligood entered her cell three times between 10 am and 3 pm to solicit sex. He finally forced her using an ice pick as a weapon to perform oral sex. After he orgasmed and let his guard down, she grabbed the ice pick and attacked him. The jury, comprised of six white Americans and six African Americans, deliberated the case for one hour and twenty-five minutes. They found Joan Little to be not guilty.

The case became a landmark decision. It challenged the age-old question of whether an African-American woman had the right to defend oneself against white male sexual assault. By exonerating Joan Little for killing a man in a position of authority, Joan Little became the first woman in US history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault. Little’s victory showed the assertion of rights no longer depended so drastically on social respectability. National exposure of police brutality, institutional racism, and violent practices of white supremacists undermined arguments linking race and sex.

10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement
Female protestors holding a Black Lives Matter banner today. Photo Credit: BlackLivesMatter.com

Conclusion

Professor Danielle L. McGuire, author of The Dark End of the Street, the book on which this article is based, states that Joan Little’s trial became a case against “the entire history of the South’s racial and sexual subjugation.” Most notably this became true when the defense attorney told the jury “God chose Joan Little… like he chose Rosa Parks” then asked whether they wanted to “continue to live in a world dominated by white supremacy”. It became clear then, to everyone involved, that the historic portrayal of African-American women as promiscuous ‘jezebels’ would not stand up in court as an excuse for assault. These women have a right to be heard and their commitment to speaking out against such violence aided the civil rights movement in ways that have not been fully appreciated thus far.

Certainly, many would agree that the struggle is still not over. Not only is the Black Lives Matter movement still ongoing and needed, the wave of sexual assault allegations levied at celebrities and politicians continues to question the rights women have over their own bodies. This article also provides the historical context for the recent rejection of Judge Roy Moore as Senator for Alabama. The state has a lengthy history with sexual assault cases, and those that remember it, do not look back on it kindly.

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