At the Dark End of the Street, Reviewed by Matt Garry
At the Dark End of the Street is a book about the African-American civil rights movement in the United States from the 1940s into the 1970s. This period saw the breakdown of institutional racism, codified by a series of laws that banned discriminatory practices that had become associated with the Jim Crow system. One of the movement’s leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., is nothing short of an icon. However, Danielle McGuire’s book is not about such well-known figures.
The author sees a largely untold side of the story of civil rights. She believes the role of women and the more sexualized aspects of racism in the United States have been largely forgotten. In the eyes of whites, black men were frequently seen as rapacious beasts. Meanwhile, black women were often targets of sexual assault by white males. McGuire gives a normally ignored account of the role of black women in the civil rights movement. This places her well within the trend of including women in history. That the role of women in such a recent and ubiquitous movement has been so disregarded is a testament to the necessity of books like McGuire’s. She also convincingly argues that one of the major fronts for black women in the battle over civil rights was in the realm of sexual violence.
McGuire’s book is essentially a succession of case studies connected across time. She examines several women who were either advocating for civil rights, resisting Jim Crow, victims of racial violence, or some combination of all three. This is conducive to a narrative way of explaining history, and the author does not shy away from employing narration. For example, McGuire describes an incident where Ella Ree Jones, a black female college student – sitting in the back half of the bus as required – refused to give up her seat to a white man. The bus driver flew into a rage, as was common. He pulled over and got two police officers. They ripped Jones off the bus. The policemen took her to city hall, severely beat her, and threw her in a jail cell. A judge convicted Jones the very next day, when she was still wearing her bloody and torn clothes. He would not entertain any accusations of abuse. McGuire uses these sorts of stories, often rather than statistics, to establish trends in the Jim Crow South. The author uses such stories to point out that Jones was in some ways lucky – it certainly wasn’t unheard of for a black woman to be raped by her arresting officers.
McGuire has clear and direct intentions in telling these kinds of stories. The first is to show what the Jim Crow system was like for women. Perhaps the most infamous acts of violence during this period were perpetrated on black men. There are countless stories and photos of lynchings, yet these always involve black men. Women of color faced different threats, often times more sexual in nature. She also points out that many female acts of defiance took place long before Rosa Parks, herself a civil rights activist, declined to stand up for a white person on a bus. This is the case with Jones.
The fact that women were carrying out acts of resistance remarkably similar to Parks before she became a national figure is a key feature of McGuire’s book. Not only does it show that women refused to simply abide the vicious racism imposed on them, but also reveals an interesting fact. Civil rights activists would often only rally around the “right” sort of person. McGuire gives the accounts of many brave women who stood up to racism but were ultimately pushed to the sidelines by activists because they were too poor or were unwed mothers, etc. Although the movement could have a spontaneous feel to it – for example Rosa Parks is one day just no longer able to move to the back of the bus for the white man – there were a lot of behind-the-scenes calculations going on.
So why is it important to write about women in the civil rights movement? It is crucial not just because women deserve to have a voice in history, but because women were immensely important to this particular episode in history. As mentioned before, there was actually a fair amount of calculation and organization to the civil rights movement. Black women played a key part in this respect. McGuire points out that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, championed by figures such as MLK, largely succeeded because of the women who participated. Women used the bus more often than men to get to their places of work.
Essentially, black women were crucial to many aspects of the civil rights movement and actually had goals, such as the cessation of sexual violence, that were not entirely shared by their male counterparts. McGuire does an excellent job of detailing the many ways in which black women contributed to civil rights and were indispensible to the overall movement. That the author tells the personal stories of women who resisted racism and segregation makes her arguments compelling. She provides interviews and photographs of such women, some of whom are still alive, to give a more concrete emphasis on their existence and importance, even though many of them have been left out of the historiography of the civil rights movement.
There are also some weaknesses to At the Dark End of the Street, however. It is fair to say that one key reason women were often relegated to the background in the civil rights movement is that American culture generally marginalized women in that period. However, McGuire perhaps does not criticize the role of the movement’s leadership in downplaying women. It seems she shies away from saying something negative about such a renowned movement. Nevertheless, the question remains. Could activists have done more to credit the women who were integral to their success? Implicitly, McGuire says yes. In many ways, that is the raison d’être of her book, to demonstrate just how important black women were in this respect. However does not directly address the issue. When trying to explain why women did not figure as publicly into the civil rights movement as men, she never really implicates the movement itself. However, it seems highly unlikely that activists, especially male activists, were in no way responsible for black women being kept in the background in spite of the critical role they played. McGuire’s book loses some explanatory power for her failure to address such issues head on.
The author falls into another historiographical trap. The subject of her writing is the civil rights of black people, especially African-American women. McGuire gets a bit wrapped up on shaping her arguments along the lines of agency. In the context of freedom from sexual violence, the author talks about how one of the principal motives of black women was to reclaim their humanity and their bodies from their white oppressors. However, words like “reclaim” carry certain implications. Such terms suggest that white men did, in fact, own black women’s bodies and humanity. Instead of saying that these women had their humanity all along and that such things were simply being denied to them, McGuire at times writes from a master-slave historiographical perspective. This does not due justice to brave women that stood up to racism and oppression. To claim that African-American women did not have agency and needed take it back plays into frameworks set by arguments surrounding the question of whether or not people had any humanity at all.
However, this should not dissuade anyone from reading McGuire’s book. The criticisms just mentioned pale in comparison to what At the Dark End of the Street has to offer. There are incredible women who organized as effectively, thought as clearly, and fought as fiercely for their rights as any man during the civil rights movement. McGuire proves that the movement likely would not have succeeded without the help of black women. More importantly, she demonstrates clearly that the civil rights movement has been overly reduced and simplified. It was not just about Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering harrowing speeches. The movement also entailed women who risked as much, if not more than men in the hopes of securing the rights enshrined in American idealism.