A brilliant and distressing book, and a needed one - a must-read for anyone interested in human rights, women's history, race, and justice. One knows going in that there's likely little of the latter to be found, but story after story still evokes anger and shock.
McGuire does a wonderful job of fleshing out the stories of well-known but misrepresented activists like Rosa Parks, often remembered as the weary woman too tired to give up her seat on a bus - an almost accidental symbol - rather than the fiery, lifelong activist she was. Other figures like Recy Taylor, Claudette Colvin, and Jo Ann Robinson are given proper recognition; these are women who survived unimaginable violence and injustice to spend their lives devoted to a struggle for change, and who refused to let their humanity be ignored. American history has few truly heroic figures, but there are certainly many to be found among these women. "A black woman's body was never hers alone."
Importantly, McGuire ties in the under-explored and often untouchable subject of the underlying roles rape, sex, and gender played in racism and the civil rights movement, with the threat of black rape of white women used as a shield for the very real and unchecked epidemic of white men raping black women and murdering black men, often with no consequences whatsoever, and no protection offered to victims. It was sexual abuse and violence against women that first unified the civil rights movement, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott and some of the first court victories securing legal protection for black Americans against racial violence. However, women's roles in the movement were obscured almost immediately, both by the press and by the male leaders themselves.
I was thinking of this while re-reading Roxane Gay's essay about The Help
Gay speaks powerfully to what is left out of the modern narrative of the Jim Crow south - that things may have been bad, yes, but that's the way things were; it was another time, with as many good guys as bad guys. Such narratives, though, barely skim the surface of the true horrors of the time - in this case, 1960s Mississippi, an era and state covered in detail in At the Dark End of the Street
- erasing voices like Parks's, Colvin's, and Taylor's for a feel-good story about the growth of a white protagonist. Truly, for the average American, these stories have to be sought out, as they are otherwise utterly obscured or, dangerously, forgotten.
It's a tough read, yes - one of the toughest I've read in awhile; there is no redeeming what was allowed to happen, no happy conclusion, but there is inspiration to be found in women who refused to let their humanity be stolen from them in the face of terrorism that seems so unimaginable. One can't help but see, though, how much of this legacy continues in the present day, and how high the cost of forgetting can be. There's still so much more to be done.