Most of us know Rosa Parks as the Black woman who sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 and refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her defiant act was a catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott, and she rightfully became an iconic leader in the civil rights movement.
Parks is often mischaracterized in history books as a quiet, “old” seamstress. However, she wasn’t quiet—and she wasn’t old. The 42-year-old Rosa Parks who defied white supremacy by refusing to stand was also a leading pioneer in the fight to stop sexual violence against Black women.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to discuss Parks’ work as a militant, anti-rape activist—and a few of the women whom Parks inspired to come forward to speak about their assaults.
A Horrific Crime
On September 3, 1944, in a small town not far from Montgomery, a woman named Recy Taylor buttoned her coat and said goodbye to her friends at a church revival. Taylor was exited to get home to her husband and three-year old daughter. However, knowing how dangerous it was for any Black person—male or female—to walk alone in the Jim Crow South, Taylor began to walk home with her friend, Fannie Daniel and Fannie’s son.
A green Chevrolet suddenly appeared. Inside were a half-dozen white men. Taylor tried to run but was unable to escape the grip of a 24-year-old white man who kidnapped her at gunpoint.
According to Fannie Daniel, the white men left the scene laughing with Taylor. The men stopped the car and each of the seven men took turns raping her. When they were done, they threw Taylor from the car and told her they would kill her if she went to the police.
Taylor’s father, who had been out searching for her, found his daughter staggering along the highway at 3 a.m. Daniel, who had witnessed the abduction, reported the kidnapping to Will Cook, a former police chief who also owned a local store.
In a remarkable act of defiance and bravery, Taylor, accompanied by her father, reported the assault to the local county sheriff, Lewey Corbitt. One of the rapists, Hugo Wilson, confessed to the crime and gave up the names of the other men involved. Despite this, no arrests were made.
It’s important to note that, in the Jim Crow South, rape only applied to white female victims. This allowed white men to use rape as a weapon of terror against Black women for decades. The rape of African American women by white men was not only used to uphold white patriarchal power, but was also deployed as a justification for lynching Black men who were falsely charged with the rape of white women.
The NAACP’s “Best Investigator”
When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) office in Montgomery found out what had happened to Taylor, the President of the NAACP sent the person he called their “Best investigator.” That investigator was the 31-year-old Rosa Parks.
Parks eventually came to lead a nationwide campaign against the sexual violence that Black women experienced at the hands of white men. Historians now know, after looking at her personal papers, that she had almost been raped by a white man in 1931.
Parks was also deeply impacted—and politicized—by the Scottsboro case in March 1931, in which nine young Black men were falsely charged with raping two white women. Parks, along with her husband and other Black activists, held secret meetings to raise money for the Scottsboro boys’ defense. This fight took 20 years to free the Scottsboro boys; the last of the nine walked out of prison in 1950.
Seeking Justice for Recy Taylor
In 1944 Parks went to Taylor’s home to interview her. While there, the Sheriff burst into Taylor’s house and threated to arrest both women. Parks returned to Montgomery and launched the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice.
The committee inundated the South with fliers “decrying white attacks on black women.” The Chicago Defender ran the headline, “Victim of White Alabama Rapists.” The story was accompanied with a photo of Taylor sitting on a sofa, dressed in a hat, in a checkered blazer with her daughter Jayce on her lap. Her husband, Willie Guy Taylor, sat beside her.
Grand Jury Investigations
Despite this national campaign, on October 9, 1944, an all-white male grand jury refused to issue an indictment. Parks, horrified, sprang into action.
As a result, she encouraged people to write protest letters to then-Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks. Hundreds of angry letters poured into the governor’s office. Sparks surprisingly responded to the outrage by ordering another investigation of the rape. However, on Feb. 14, 1945, a grand jury refused to indict the suspects for a second time.
Another Victim, Another Investigation
Five years later Parks rallied around Gertrude Perkins, a 25-year-old Black woman. Perkins was walking home from a bus stop when she was confronted by two uniformed white policemen. These men forced her into a marked police car, drove her to a secluded area and raped her at gunpoint.
After several hours, the policemen returned her to the bus stop and warned her to keep quiet. Perkins courageously reported the rape to her minister. The minister notified Rosa Parks who immediately began to organize a protest. Even though a grand jury failed to indict the rapists, in an astonishing outcome, the protest secured a trial and kept the story in the newspapers for nearly two months.
Then in 1951, Flossie Hardman, a 15-year-old Black girl, was raped by her white employer, Sam Green, while driving her home after her shift. Unsurprisingly, an all-white jury found Green not guilty after five minutes of deliberation.
Hardman’s family reached out to local activists, including Rosa Parks. Green’s grocery store was in a primarily African American neighborhood and thus dependent on the patronage of Black customers. Rufus Lewis, a local Black businessman and veteran, along with Parks, helped organize a boycott of Green’s store.
The boycott shut the store down in only a few weeks and marked a major victory. This triumph exemplified Parks’ commitment to fighting against the continued dehumanization of Black women’s bodies.
The boycott also sent a potent message to whites, just four years before the now famous Montgomery bus boycott. For the first time, white folks in the US realized that African Americans would not allow white men to dehumanize and violate Black women’s bodies without repercussion.
Justice for Joan
Parks’ work continued well into the 1970s. In 1974, 20-year-old Joan Little, a Black woman, was serving a seven-year prison sentence for theft. Clarence Alligood, a 62-year-old white night jailer, entered Little’s cell with an ice pick in hand intending to sexually assault her. In a desperate plight to save herself, she apprehended the pick and stabbed him.
Little escaped from prison, but a week later turned herself in. She was charged with murder and faced the death penalty. Parks helped to create the Joanne* Little Defense Committee in order to seek justice for Little.
Eventually, Little became the first woman in American history to win freedom by using self-defense against sexual assault in a homicide case. (*Joan’s name was pronounced “Jo-Ann,” so people often spelled it “Joann” or “Joanne.”)
A Long Fight
Our history books teach us that the civil rights movement was a struggle between Black and white men. The heroic leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X, confronting white nationalists like Alabama politician “Bull” Connor and Governor George Wallace, is often highlighted—while overlooking the mass violence perpetrated against Black women’s bodies.
African American women were not silent about these crimes, as you have read here. The real story is that white supremacy was being held in place at the expense of their bodies.
It is long past the time that we incorporate these stories of sexual violence into the larger narrative. A failure to do so only continues to dehumanize the unknown number of Black women who were raped—and the thousands of activists, like Parks, who tried to get justice.
Our history books also present Rosa Parks as the timid, “old” lady who helped inspire a major movement. However, as you have read here, she is much more than just her actions on a bus on a single day in 1955.
Rosa Parks passed away in 2005. The most honorable thing we can do is celebrate her long and tedious fight against the sexual violence perpetrated against Black women.