In 2016, former Oklahoma City Police Officer and rapist Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison for the rapes and sexual assaults of seven black women and one black girl, ranging in age from 17 to 58.
He was found guilty of 18 of 36 charges, including four charges of first-degree rape, one of rape by instrumentation, six of sexual battery and four of forcible oral sodomy.
Before his arrest, trial and conviction, and before his name began trending, coverage of the case was minimal at best. If not for the relentless efforts of such organizations as the African American Policy Forum, the Black Women’s Blueprint and OKC Artists for Justice, Holtzclaw’s crimes may have flown under the radar, which is too often the case when black women are victims of heinous crimes.
Though I was thrilled to see Holtzclaw shaking and crying in court like the cowardly predator that he is, and happy for the women who did receive some validation in a court of law that their lives mattered, he should have never felt comfortable enough to prey on them in the first place. But this country teaches men—with power and without—that black women are disposable.
Even with the unexpected verdict, though, I could not stop thinking about the five women who were told that their pain, their suffering, their trauma, meant nothing.
I could not stop thinking about Recy Taylor and Gertrude Perkins.
Recy Taylor was 24 years old on Sept. 3, 1944, when she was abducted, blindfolded and gang-raped by six white supremacists in Abbeville, Ala. She was walking home from church with her friend Fannie Daniel and Daniel’s son, West, when a green Chevrolet that had circled the street several times finally pulled alongside them.
Seven white men forced Taylor into the vehicle at gunpoint; one of them, Billy Howerton, would later say that he didn’t participate in the rape because he knew Taylor, the New York Times reports.
Taylor, who died Dec. 27 at 97 years old, told her story to NPR’s Michel Martin in 2011:
We went on to church and came back. A car running around outside of us, six young men jumped out with a gun and said that—you’re the one that cut a white boy in Clarkton. And the police got us out looking for you. You get in the car and we will take you uptown to the police station.
And they got me in the car and carried me straight through the woods, but before they go where they was going, they blindfolded me. After they messed over and did what they were going to do me, say, we’re going to take you back. We’re going to put you out. But if you tell it, we’re going to kill you.
“Wasn’t nothing done about it,” Taylor, then 91, said. “The sheriff never even said he was sorry it happened. I think more people should know about it … but ain’t nobody [in Abbeville] saying nothing.”
The sheriff, George H. Gamble, didn’t say he was sorry because he wasn’t.
There was only one vehicle in Abbeville that matched the description of Taylor’s assailants, one belonging to Hugo Wilson. Upon being “questioned” by Gamble, Wilson said that he, Herbert Lovett, Dillard York, Luther Lee, Willie Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble (relation to Sheriff Gamble unknown) all “had intercourse with her,” but he insisted that she was a prostitute—and Gamble sent him home, the New York Times reports.
The night after she was raped, the home that Taylor shared with her husband and 3-year-old daughter was firebombed.
“After that, they moved in with us,” Benny Corbitt, Taylor’s brother, told The Root. “At night, my father would sit in a tree and guard the house with a shotgun.”
Enter: Rosa Parks.
Despite what whitewashed history books would have us believe, Rosa Parks’ radical action on Dec. 1, 1955, was neither random nor spontaneous. She was not simply a tired seamstress too exhausted to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man; she was a veteran organizer and activist on a mission.
Claudette Colvin, then 15, had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman nine months prior to Parks. For daring to be free, Colvin was thrown off the bus and arrested, but she didn’t become the face of the movement. Instead, she found herself shunned by her community, alone and pregnant.
“[Rosa Parks’] skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin said in a 2009 NPR interview. “She fit that profile.”
In addition, as the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Parks was well-known, well-respected and an “inherently impressive person,” historian David Garrow, the author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told NPR.
The ruthless disregard with which movement leaders treated Colvin should not be erased, as it mirrors how those deemed “imperfect victims” are often sidelined today; neither should the fact that Parks used every ounce of her class and color privilege for her people—and, perhaps, to free a younger version of herself.
In 1931, when she was 18 years old, Parks was the victim of an attempted rape. “Mr. Charlie,” as she referred to him, was a white neighbor who employed young Rosa in his home snd tried to force himself on her, and she described her feelings in detail in a letter that was discovered in 2011.
“I was trapped and helpless,” she wrote. “I was hurt and sickened through with anger and disgust.”
Perhaps Parks’ personal experience led her down the path to becoming the fierce advocate for justice that she would become. Long before she set foot on that Montgomery bus, she had been fighting for black women who were raped, sexually assaulted and harassed by white supremacists in the Deep South and documenting their stories. The Montgomery busing system was the site not just of racial terror but for racialized sexual abuse as well.
Parks knew that.
As Danielle McGuire, historian and author of 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, notes:
Other than police officers, few were as guilty of committing acts of racist violence and sexual harassment of black women as Montgomery’s bus operators, who bullied and brutalized black passengers daily. Worse, bus drivers had police power. They carried blackjacks and guns, and they assaulted and sometimes even killed African Americans who refused to abide by the racial order of Jim Crow.
In 1953 alone, African Americans filed over thirty formal complaints of abuse and mistreatment on the buses. Most came from working-class black women, mainly domestics, who made up nearly 70% of the bus ridership.
Parks knew exactly what she doing in 1955, just as she did in 1944, when, at 31 years old, she went to Abbeville to investigate the brutal rape of Recy Taylor.
In 1944, after meeting with Taylor and hearing her story firsthand, Parks formed the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor, a campaign that soon garnered support from activists, organizers and writers such as Mary Church Terrell, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois. Before it was all said and done, there were Recy Taylor groups all across the country.
The Chicago Defender called it “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade,” yet it is barely spoken about today. Taylor died never receiving justice because two all-white, all-male juries refused to indict her rapists.
In 1949, five years after Taylor was abducted and raped, Gertrude Perkins was walking home from a party in Montgomery, Ala., when she was abducted and raped by two white police officers.
The officers accused her of “public drunkenness,” pushed her into the back of their squad car and drove her to a railroad embankment, where they raped her behind a building. Perkins was then dumped at a bus stop and warned to keep her mouth shut.
Rosa Parks also fought for justice for Perkins, forming the Citizens Committee for Gertrude Perkins, patterned after the campaign she spearheaded for Recy Taylor.
Perkins, like Taylor, never received justice.
McGuire, who details both Perkins’ and Taylor’s stories in Dark End of the Street,reported that authorities “refused to hold a line-up or issue any warrants since, according to the mayor, it would ‘violate the Constitutional rights’ of the police. Besides, he said, ‘my policemen would not do a thing like that.’”
Like Taylor, Perkins’ reputation was maligned, her life was threatened, and her attackers—standing boldly in plain sight, shielded by their whiteness and badges, never suffered any consequences.
Just as whitewashed school books didn’t teach us that the 1965 state-sanctioned police murder of 26-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson in Selma, Ala., was the impetus for the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, “Gertrude Perkins” is a name that not many people know.
“Gertrude Perkins is not even mentioned in the history books, but she had as much to do with the bus boycott as anyone on earth,” Joe Azbell, former city editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, said during a 1997 NPR interview.
These are just two of the names we know and here we are today—still.
Sexual misconduct is the second-highest form of police misconduct in the nation after excessive force. According to a 2007 report prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, The Nation reports, “Rape and sexual abuse by police [in the United States] are primarily reported by women of color.”
“[B]lack women are routinely killed, raped and beaten by the police,” wrote Kimberlé Crenshaw, director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, in the 2015 report “#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.”
At the 2018 Golden Globes Awards on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey brought these women into the room. She stood before Hollywood’s elite crowd and told Recy Taylor’s story. She didn’t just talk about the women who are assaulted on casting couches, but the women who work on farms and in diners and in academia who have all been silenced by too-powerful men.
And while she didn’t mention her own story of being repeatedly molested and of being raped at 9 years old by a family friend, you could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice as she said, “Me, too.”
At the intersection of state and sexual violence, you will find black women who are silenced, ignored and erased. That has been the reality for too long because we live in a country where our blackness and our gender have made assaults against our bodies permissible. As I’ve written previously, systemic oppression has always been mapped on the bodies of black women—whether that oppression manifests through state violence or in our own communities.
Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, was in tears Sunday night because this moment is not just shining a much deserved spotlight on her tireless work; it is not just a moment for white women to confront their complicity in violence against women of color; it is not just a moment to disrupt the dominant narrative that rape and sexual assault matter only when the victims are young, rich, able-bodied, straight and white.
Burke, who began her organizing career in Alabama and has played a key role in organizing events in Selma, has made it clear that this movement is built on the shoulders of our elders.
“We can’t do this work without continuously referencing the work of Rosa Parks fighting against the sexual and racial violence that black women were subjected to,” she told The Root.
This means that it is our duty to tell these stories. It is our duty to lift up our elders and ancestors so that no one forgets their names or dilutes their legacies. We are standing in a tradition of black women who fought back against white supremacy and sexual violence over 70 years ago and made it plain that there can be no black liberation if black women are not free.
This movement is for Recy Taylor.
This movement is for Gertrude Perkins.
This movement is for Claudette Colvin, and for all of the black girls who are shamed into silence because they have been told they aren’t good enough, pretty enough or smart enough for anyone to pay attention.
This movement continues the work of Rosa Parks, who risked her life chasing justice for black women in the Jim Crow South, only to have her legacy be distilled down to not giving up her seat on a bus.
This movement is for the five women who did not get justice even though, they, too, were raped by Daniel Holtzclaw.
This movement is for the young Oprah Winfreys—born into poverty in the Deep South, molested, neglected and not expected to survive.
This movement is for the black girls who, right now, are being raped and abused in their homes and in their churches and in their schools by people who claim to love them in a nation that claims to care.
This movement is ours.
There is no slowing down. There is no giving up.
There is no turning back.