The African American Freedom Struggle
From The Journal of American History Vol. 91, Issue 3.
Presented online in association with the History Cooperative.
“It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped”: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and
the African American Freedom Struggle
Danielle L. McGuire
On Saturday, May 2, 1959, four white men in Tallahassee, Florida, made a pact, one of their
friends testified in court later, to “go out and get a nigger girl” and have an “all night party.” That
evening, they armed themselves with shotguns and switchblades and crept up behind a car
parked alongside a quiet road near Jake Gaither Park. At about 1:00 a.m. on May 3, Patrick
Scarborough pressed a sixteen-gauge shotgun against the driver’s nose and ordered Richard
Brown and his companions out of the car. Dressed in formal gowns and tuxedoes, the four
African Americans—all students at Florida A&M University who had spent the evening dancing
at the Green and Orange Ball—reluctantly stepped out of the car. Scarborough forced the two
black men to kneel, while his friend David Beagles held the two black women at knifepoint.
When Betty Jean Owens began to cry, Beagles slapped her and told her to “shut up” or she
“would never get back home.” Waving his gun, Scarborough ordered Richard Brown and his
friend Thomas Butterfield back in the car and told them to leave. As Brown and Butterfield
began to move toward the car and then slowly drove away, Edna Richardson broke free and ran
to the nearby park, leaving Betty Jean Owens alone with their attackers. Beagles pressed the
switchblade to Owens’s throat and growled, “We’ll let you go if you do what we want,” then
forced her to her knees, slapped her as she sobbed, and pushed her into the backseat of their blue
Chevrolet; the four men drove her to the edge of town, where they raped her seven times.1
Analyses of rape play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, even as
stories of violence against black and white men—from Emmett Till to Andrew Goodman,
Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney—provide gripping examples of racist brutality.2 Despite
a growing body of literature that focuses on the roles of black and white women and the
operation of gender in the movement, sexualized violence—both as a tool of oppression and as a
political spur for the movement—has yet to find its place in the story of the African American
freedom struggle.3 Rape, like lynching and murder, served as a tool of psychological and
physical intimidation that expressed white male domination and buttressed white supremacy.
During the Jim Crow era, women’s bodies served as signposts of the social order, and white men
used rape and rumors of rape not only to justify violence against black men but to remind black
women that their bodies were not their own.
African American women frequently retaliated by testifying about their brutal experiences. I
argue that, from Harriet Jacobs to Ida B. Wells to the women of the present, the refusal of black
women to remain silent about sexualized violence was part of a long-standing tradition. Black
women described and denounced their sexual misuse, deploying their voices as weapons in the
wars against white supremacy. Indeed, their public protests often galvanized local, national, and
even international outrage and sparked campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. When
Betty Jean Owens spoke out against her assailants, and when the local black community
mobilized in defense of her womanhood in 1959, they joined in this tradition of testimony and
The arrest, trial, and conviction of Owens’s white rapists by an all-white jury marked a
dramatic change in the relations between this tradition of testimony and a tradition of silence that
Darlene Clark Hine has termed the “culture of dissemblance.”4 The verdict not only broke with
southern tradition but fractured the philosophical and political foundations of white supremacy
by challenging the relationship between sexual domination and racial inequality. For perhaps the
first time since Reconstruction, southern black communities could imagine state power being
deployed in defense of their respectability as men and women. As a result, the 1959 Tallahassee
rape case was a watershed event that remains as revealing now as it was important then.
The sexual exploitation of black women had its roots in slavery. Slave owners, overseers,
and drivers took advantage of their positions of power and authority to rape slave women,
sometimes in the presence of their husbands or families. White slave owners’ stolen access to
black women’s bodies strengthened their political, social, and economic power, partly because
colonial laws made the offspring of slave women the property of their masters.5 After the fall of
slavery, when African Americans asserted their freedom during the interracial experiment in
democracy that briefly characterized Reconstruction, former slaveholders and their sympathizers
used violence and terror to reassert control over the social, political, and economic agency of
freedpeople. At the heart of this violence, according to Gerda Lerner, rape became a “weapon of
terror” to dominate the bodies and minds of African American men and women.6
“Freedom,” as Tera Hunter notes, “was meaningless without ownership and control over
one’s own body.” During Reconstruction and Jim Crow, sexualized violence served as a
“ritualistic reenactment of the daily pattern of social dominance,” and interracial rape became the
battleground upon which black men and women fought for ownership of their own bodies. Many
African American women who were raped or assaulted by white men fought back by speaking
out. Frances Thompson told a congressional committee investigating the 1866 Memphis race riot
that seven armed white men broke into her house on a Tuesday afternoon, “drew their pistols and
said they would shoot us and fire the house if we did not let them have their way with us.” Four
of the men raped Frances, while the other three choked and raped sixteen-year-old Lucy Smith
and left her close to death. In 1871, Harriet Simril testified in front of a congressional committee
investigating Ku Klux Klan terror during Reconstruction that she was beaten and “ravished” by
eight men in South Carolina who broke into her house to force her husband to “join the
democratic ticket.” Essic Harris, appearing before the same committee, reported that “the rape of
black women was so frequent” in the postbellum South that it had become “an old saying by
now.” Ferdie Walker, who grew up during the height of segregation in the 1930s and 1940s in
Fort Worth, Texas, remembered being “scared to death” by a white police officer who often
exposed himself to her while she waited at the bus stop when she was only eleven years old. The
sexual abuse of black women, she recalled, was an everyday occurrence. “That was really bad
and it was bad for all black girls,” she recalled.7
John H. McCray, editor of the South Carolina Lighthouse and Informer, reported that it was
“a commonplace experience for many of our women in southern towns … to be propositioned
openly by white men.” He said, “You can pick up accounts of these at a dime a dozen in almost
any community.” African American women that I interviewed in Birmingham, Alabama, in
March 2003 echoed Ferdie Walker’s and McCray’s comments. Nearly all of them testified about
being sexually abused or intimidated by white men—particularly bus drivers, police officers, and
The acclaimed freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer knew that rape and sexual violence was a
common occurrence in the segregated South. For Freedom’s Sake, Chana Kai Lee’s biography of
Hamer, is one of the few histories of the modern-day civil rights movement that openly deals
with and documents the legacy of sexual assault. Hamer’s grandmother, Liza Bramlett, spoke
often of the “horrors of slavery,” including stories about “how the white folks would do her.”
Bramlett’s daughter remembered that “this man would keep her as long as he want to and then he
would trade her off for a little heifer calf. Then the other man would get her and keep her as long
as he want—she was steady having babies—and trade her off for a little sow pig.” Twenty of the
twenty-three children Bramlett gave birth to were products of rape.9
Hamer grew up with the clear understanding that a “black woman’s body was never hers
alone.” If she was at all unclear about this lesson, the forced hysterectomy she received in 1961
and the brutal beating she received in the Winona, Mississippi, jail in 1963 left little room for
confusion. After being arrested with other Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
activists for desegregating a restaurant, Hamer received a savage and sexually abusive beating by
the Winona police. “You bitch,” one officer yelled, “we going to make you wish you was dead.”
He ordered two black inmates to beat Hamer with “a long wide blackjack,” while other
patrolmen battered “her head and other parts of her body.” As they assaulted her, Hamer felt
them repeatedly “pull my dress over my head and try to feel under my clothes.” She attempted to
pull her dress down during the brutal attack in order to “preserve some respectability through the
horror and disgrace.” Hamer told this story on national television at the Democratic National
Convention in 1964 and continued to tell it “until the day she died,” offering her testimony of the
sexual and racial injustice of segregation.10
By speaking out, whether it was in the church, the courtroom, or a congressional hearing,
black women used their own public voices to reject the stereotypes used by white supremacists
to justify economic and sexual exploitation, and they reaffirmed their own humanity.
Additionally, African American women’s refusal to remain silent offered African American men
an opportunity to assert themselves as men by rallying around the protection of black
womanhood. Many other men, however, remained silent since speaking out was often dangerous,
if not deadly. Most important, women’s testimonies were a political act that exposed the bitter
ironies of segregation and white supremacy, helped to reverse the shame and humiliation rape
inflicts, and served as catalysts in mobilizing mass movements.11
Only after local and national groups were organized, black women’s testimony began to
spark public campaigns for equal justice and protection of black womanhood. In this respect,
World War II served as a watershed for African Americans—especially in the South. Black
women’s testimony and the willingness of black leaders to protect black womanhood must be
viewed as part of these resistance movements. For example, in Montgomery, Alabama, the
organizational infrastructure that made the Montgomery bus boycott possible in 1955 stemmed
in part from decades of black women’s activism and a history of gendered political appeals to
protect black women from sexual assault. The majority of leaders active in the Montgomery
Improvement Association in 1955 cut their political teeth demanding justice for black women
who were raped in the 1940s and early 1950s.12
In 1944, the kidnapping and gang rape of Mrs. Recy Taylor by six white men in Abbeville,
Alabama, sparked what the Chicago Defender called “the strongest campaign for equal justice to
Negroes to be seen in a decade.” Taylor, a twenty-four-year-old African American woman, was
walking home from the Rock Hill Holiness Church near Abbeville on September 3 when a
carload of six white men pulled alongside her, pointed a gun at her head, and ordered her to get
into the car. They drove her to a vacant patch of land where Herbert Lovett pointed his rifle at
Taylor and demanded she get out of the car and “get them rags off or I will kill you and leave
you down here in the woods.” Lovett held her at gunpoint while each of the white men took turns
“ravishing” her. After the men raped her, Lovett blindfolded her, pushed her into the car, and
dropped her off in the middle of town. That night, Recy Taylor told her father, her husband, and
Deputy Sheriff Lewey Corbitt the details of her harrowing assault.13
Within a few weeks, the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor formed and was
led on a local level by Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, Rufus A. Lewis, and E. G. Jackson (editor of the
Alabama Tribune), all of whom later became pivotal figures in the Montgomery bus boycott. By
utilizing the political infrastructure designed to defend the Scottsboro boys a decade earlier and
employing the rhetoric of democracy sparked by World War II, Parks, Nixon, and their allies
secured the support of national labor unions, African American organizations, women’s groups,
and thousands of individuals who demanded that Gov. Chauncey Sparks order an immediate
investigation and trial. “The raping of Mrs. Recy Taylor was a fascist-like, brutal violation of her
personal rights as a woman and as a citizen of democracy,” Eugene Gordon, a reporter for the
New York Daily Worker, wrote in a pamphlet about the case; “Mrs. Taylor was not the first
Negro woman to be outraged,” he argued, “but it is our intention to make her the last. Whitesupremacy
imitators of Hitler’s storm troopers [will] shrink under the glare of the nation’s
spotlight.” Gordon closed by universalizing the rape: “The attack on Mrs. Taylor was an attack
on all women. Mrs. Taylor is a Negro … but no woman is safe or free until all women are
free.”14 Few African Americans were surprised when the Henry County Grand Jury twice failed
to indict the white men—despite the governor’s belief that they were, in fact, guilty. Still, Recy
Taylor’s testimony launched a national and international campaign for equal justice that must not
be ignored.15
Five years later, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, rallied to the defense of a
twenty-five-year-old black woman named Gertrude Perkins. On March 27, 1949, Perkins was
walking home when she was arrested for public drunkenness and attacked by two white police
officers in uniform. After forcing her into their squad car, they drove her to the edge of town and
raped her repeatedly at gunpoint. Afterwards, they threw her out of their car and sped away.
Somehow, she found the strength to stagger into town, where she went directly to Rev. Solomon
Seay Sr.’s house. Awaking him, she told him the details of her brutal assault through sobs and
tears. “We didn’t go to bed that morning,” remembered Seay; “I kept her at my house, carefully
wrote down what she said, and later had it notarized.” Seay sent Perkins’s horror story to the
syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who let the whole country know what happened in his daily
radio address before Montgomery’s white leaders knew what hit them.16
The leaders of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Negro Improvement
League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by
E. D. Nixon and the Reverend Mr. Seay, joined together to form the Citizens Committee for
Gertrude Perkins. Mary Fair Burks and her newly formed Women’s Political Council may have
been involved since one of their early goals was to “aid victims of rape.” Although the
community mobilized on behalf of Perkins, a grand jury failed to indict the assailants a few
weeks later, despite running the full process of “the Anglo-Saxon system of justice.” Still, Joe
Azbell, editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, thought Gertrude Perkins, who bravely spoke out
against the men who raped her, “had as much to do with the bus boycott and its creation as
anyone on earth.” The Perkins protest did not occur in isolation. In February 1951, Rufus A.
Lewis, whose influence was crucial to the 1955 campaign, led a boycott of a grocery store owned
by Sam E. Green, a white man, who was accused of raping his black teenage babysitter while
driving her home. Lewis, a World War II veteran and football coach at Alabama State
University, organized other veterans and members of the Citizens’ Coordinating Committee in
the successful campaign to close the store and bring Green to trial.17
The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott itself can be viewed as the most obvious example of the
African American community coming to the rescue of a black woman, Rosa Parks, though not
because of rape. When Parks sat down in a bus’s “no-man’s land” and was arrested for refusing to
give up her seat to a white man, Montgomery blacks found the perfect woman to rally around.
“Humble enough to be claimed by the common folk,” Taylor Branch notes, Rosa Parks was
“dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leading classes.”
Rosa Parks fit the middle-class ideals of “chastity, Godliness, family responsibility, and proper
womanly conduct and demeanor” and was the kind of woman around which all the African
Americans in Montgomery could rally. It is clear that her symbolic role as icon of virtuous black
womanhood was decisive in Montgomery. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first speech at Holt
Street Baptist Church stressed this point. “And since it had to happen,” the young preacher told
the crowd, “I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks. Nobody can doubt the height of
her character; nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.”18
By selecting Rosa Parks as the symbol of segregation instead of other, less exemplary black
women who had been arrested on buses earlier in 1955, black leaders in Montgomery embraced
the “politics of respectability” and adhered to what Darlene Clark Hine calls the “culture of
dissemblance” as a matter of political necessity amidst the burning white backlash that the 1954
Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education sparked.19 The White Citizens’
Councils, a kind of uptown Ku Klux Klan, led the movement for massive resistance to school
integration by relying heavily on sexual scare tactics and white fears of racial amalgamation. As
a result, any gender or racial impropriety on the part of African Americans could be viewed as
threatening the social order. For the supporters of segregation, “integration always meant
miscegenation.” Headlines in the Citizens’ Council warned that “mixed marriage,” “sex orgies,”
and accounts of black men raping white girls were “typical of stories filtering back from areas
where racial integration is proceeding ‘with all deliberate speed.'”20
In this environment, respectability and dissemblance required that silence surround black
sexuality, a “cult of secrecy” that helped counter negative stereotypes and kept the inner lives of
African Americans hidden from white people. This self-imposed reticence, Hine argues,
“implied that those [African American women] who spoke out provided grist for detractors’ mills
and, even more ominously, tore the protective cloaks from their inner selves.”21 Silence as
strategy did not emerge in the mid-twentieth century; it had been a staple of black clubwomen’s
politics since Reconstruction, when whites continued to use racist violence and sexual abuse to
shore up white supremacy.
The culture of dissemblance does not mean there was an unbroken wall of silence. There are
moments in history when the pain of violation or the opportunity for justice forced women to
come forward to speak out against their abusers. Yet this code of secrecy, a political imperative
during the Montgomery bus boycott, helped create a void in the historical record. As a result,
violence toward black women has not been as “vividly and importantly retained in our collective
memory,” Elsa Barkley Brown claims, as the lynching of and violence against black men.22
In many ways, this culture of dissemblance silenced more than the survivors of rape; it also
trained historians of the black freedom struggle to ignore the subject of black women’s
dissemblance. Over the past two decades, historians have sharpened their focus on the gendered
meanings of respectability, but they have lost sight of the role rape and the threat of sexual
violence played in the daily lives of African American women as well as within the larger black
freedom struggle.23 Yet throughout the Jim Crow South African American women such as Recy
Taylor in 1944, Gertrude Perkins in 1949, and Betty Jean Owens in 1959 refused to shield their
pain in secrecy, thereby challenging the pervasiveness of the politics of respectability. Following
in the footsteps of their Reconstruction-era counterparts, they testified about their assaults,
leaving behind critical evidence that historians must find the courage to analyze.
To be sure, black women’s refusal to remain silent about sexual violence during and after
slavery suggests that the culture of dissemblance functioned in tension and in tandem with a
tradition of testimony. Even after respectability became the key to black women’s symbolic place
in the civil rights movement in the early 1950s, however, a number of African American women
continued to speak out publicly about being raped, and African American community members
rallied to their defense. Unfortunately, too many of these stories remain buried in the archives,
yellowing newspapers, or the memories of the survivors, contributing to the historical amnesia
about black women’s experiences. And Montgomery, Alabama, was not the only place in which
attacks on black womanhood fueled protests against white supremacy. Betty Jean Owens’s
experience in Florida is evidence that a significant story has been missed across the South.
When the four armed white men in Tallahassee forced Thomas Butterfield and Richard Brown to
get into their car and drive away, leaving Betty Jean Owens and Edna Richardson at the mercy of
their assailants, the two black men did not abandon them but drove around the corner and waited.
As the blue Chevrolet disappeared down the street, Brown and Butterfield hurried back to the
scene. Edna Richardson, the black woman who was able to get away, saw her friends from her
hiding spot, called out to them, and then ran to the car. Hoping to save Owens, the Florida A&M
students rushed to the local police station to report the crime.24
Similar situations in other southern towns had typically left African Americans without
police aid. The officer on duty that night in Tallahassee was Joe Cooke Jr., a nineteen-year-old
intern from the all-white Florida State University. Much to the surprise of the three black
students, he agreed to look for Owens and her assailants. After a lengthy search, one of the
students finally spotted the blue Chevrolet and shouted, “That’s it!” It was just after 4:00 a.m.
Deputy Cooke turned on his flashers and drove alongside the car. Attempting to escape, the
kidnappers led Cooke “twisting and turning through the dark streets of Tallahassee at speeds up
to 100 miles per hour.” One of the white men suggested “dumping the nigger,” but William
Collinsworth replied, “we can’t now, he’s on our tail.” Finally, Collinsworth pulled the car to the
curb, grabbed his shotgun, and got out of the car. Deputy Cooke drew his pistol and ordered all
four to line up against the car or, he threatened, “I will shoot to kill.”25
As they waited for assistance from Cooke’s supervisor, they heard muffled screams coming
from the car. Richard Brown and Deputy Cooke peered through the rear window and saw Betty
Jean Owens, bound and gagged, lying on the backseat floorboards. Brown tried to help her out of
the car, but, as her feet touched the ground, she collapsed. Cooke drove Betty Jean Owens and
her friends to the local colored hospital at Florida A&M while Deputy Sheriff W. W. Slappey
arrested the four white men and drove them to the jailhouse. 26
Laughing and joking on the way to the police station, the four white men apparently did not
take their arrest seriously, nor did they think they had done anything wrong. Collinsworth, for
example, worried less about the charges against him than about the safety of his car. Deputy
Sheriff Slappey revealed his disgust when he handed the men over to Sheriff Raymond Hamlin
Jr. “They all admitted it,” Slappey said; “they didn’t say why they did it and that’s all I’m going to
say about this dirty business.” William Collinsworth, David Beagles, Ollie Stoutamire, and
Patrick Scar-borough confessed in writing to abducting Betty Jean Owens at gunpoint and
having “sexual relations” with her. When Sheriff Hamlin asked the men to look over their
statements and make any necessary corrections, David Beagles, smiling, bent over the table and
made one minor adjustment before he and his friends were hustled off to jail.27
If the four white men did not take their arrests seriously, students at Florida A&M
University flew into a rage. Many of them were veterans of the Tallahassee bus boycott in 1957,
a Montgomery-inspired campaign that highlighted the trend in students’ preference for direct
action rather than the more respectable and slower litigation favored by the NAACP throughout
the 1940s and 1950s. When the students heard news of the attack on Owens and the subsequent
arrest of four white men, a small group planned an armed march to city hall to let city officials
know that they were willing to protect black womanhood the same way whites “protected” white
womanhood—with violence or at least a show of force. Mainstream student leaders persuaded
them that an armed march was “the wrong thing to do” and patched together a “Unity”
demonstration on Sunday, May 3, only twelve hours after Betty Jean Owens was admitted to the
hospital and the four white men were taken to jail.28
Fifteen hundred students filled Lee Auditorium, where Clifford Taylor, president of the
Student Government Association, said he “would not sit idly by and see our sisters, wives, and
mothers desecrated.” Using language white men in power could understand, student leaders
professed their “belief in the dignity, respect, and protection of womanhood” and announced that
they would petition the governor and other authorities for a “speedy and impartial trial.”29
Early the next day, a thousand students gathered in the university’s grassy quadrangle with
signs, hymns, and prayers aimed at the national news media, which sent out stories of the attack
across the country. The students planned to show Tallahassee and the rest of the nation that white
men could no longer attack black women without consequence. Student protesters held signs
calling for “Justice”; other posters declared, “It could have been YOUR sister, wife, or mother.”
Some students linked the attack in Tallahassee to larger issues related to the black freedom
struggle: two students held up a poster depicting scenes from Little Rock, Arkansas, which read,
“My God How Much More of This Can We Take.”30
On May 4, 1959, over one thousand Florida A&M students gathered on the university’s
quadrangle to demand justice for Betty Jean Owens, a student at the historically black college
who had been brutally raped by four white men two nights before. Courtesy of the Famuan, the
Florida A&M University student newspaper, May 1959.
It was the deeply personal violation that rape inflicts, however, that gave the students their
focus. Patricia Stephens Due remembered feeling helpless and unsafe. She recalled, “we all felt
violated, male and female. It was like all of us had been raped.” The student leader Buford
Gibson, speaking to a crowd, universalized the attack when he said, “You must remember it
wasn’t just one Negro girl that was raped—it was all of Negro womanhood in the South.”31 By
using Betty Jean Owens as a black Everywoman, Gibson challenged male students to rise up in
protest and then placed the protection of black womanhood in their hands. Gibson’s exhortation
inspired students at Florida A&M to maintain their nonviolent demonstration, unlike white men
who historically used the protection of white womanhood to inspire mob violence against black
At about the same time, white men in Poplarville, Mississippi, used the protection of
womanhood as justification for the lynching of Mack Charles Parker, a black man who was
charged with the kidnapping and rape of a twenty-four-year-old white woman who could barely
identify him in a police lineup. On April 25, 1959, two days before his trial, a group of eight to
ten white men obtained keys to Parker’s unguarded jail cell, savagely beat him, and then dragged
him down three flights of stairs and out of the building while he screamed “I’m innocent.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents located Parker’s bloated body floating in the Pearl
River on May 4, 1959, just two days after four white men gang-raped Betty Jean Owens.32 The
Parker lynching cast a shadow over Tallahassee, brutally reminding the black community that
white women’s bodies were off limits, while the bodies of black women were fair game.
Accelerating media coverage, student-led protests, and a threat to boycott classes at Florida
A&M forced Judge W. May Walker to call members of the grand jury into special session in
Tallahassee on May 6, 1959. Over two hundred black spectators, mostly students, squeezed into
the segregated balcony at the Leon County Courthouse to catch a glimpse of Betty Jean Owens
and her attackers before they retreated into the secret hearing. Still undergoing hospital treatment
for injuries inflicted during the attack and for “severe depression,” Owens was accompanied to
the courthouse by a nurse, the hospital administrator, and her mother.33
Gasps and moans emanated from the balcony when, after two hours behind closed doors,
William Collinsworth, David Beagles, Patrick Scarborough, and Ollie Stoutamire emerged,
calmly faced the judge, and pleaded innocent to the charge of rape, making a jury trial
mandatory. African Americans in the balcony roared with disapproval. Dr. M. C. Williams, a
local black leader, shouted, “four colored men would be dead if the situation had been reversed.
It looks like an open and shut case.” Defense attorneys for Collinsworth and Scarborough argued
for a delay, insisting that public excitement threatened a fair trial, but Judge Walker ignored their
objections. For the first time in Florida history, a judge sent the white defendants charged with
raping an African American woman back to jail to await their trial. Echoing the sentiments of the
people around him, a young boy traced “we want justice” in the dust on the railing of the
segregated balcony.34
Justice was the last thing the black community expected. In the thirty-four years since
Florida began sending convicted rapists to the electric chair instead of the gallows, the state had
electrocuted thirty-seven African Americans charged with raping white women. Before this,
Florida led the country in per capita lynchings, even surpassing such notoriously violent states as
Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. From 1900 to 1930, white Floridians lynched 281 people,
256 of whom were African American. Throughout its history, Florida never executed or lynched
a white man for raping a black woman. In this respect, Florida followed the entire region.
Florida’s violent history included the “little Scottsboro” case involving Samuel Shepard, Walter
Irvin, and Charles Greenlee, black men accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Florida,
in 1949. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their guilty verdicts in 1951, Sheriff Willis
McCall picked up Shepard and Irvin from Raiford State Prison to transfer them back to the
county. On the way there, McCall pulled to the side of the road and asked the two handcuffed
men to change the tire and then shot them both in the chest. He radioed his boss and muttered, “I
got rid of them; killed the sons of bitches.” Walter Irvin survived the shooting, but Samuel
Shepard died that day.35
In Tallahassee, memories of the “little Scottsboro” case hung over many members of the
African American community in 1954 when the state electrocuted Abraham Beard, a seventeenyear-
old black youth accused of raping a white woman. Apart from the races of the accuser and
the accused, the Beard case featured a cast of characters almost identical to that of the
Tallahassee case five years later: an all-white jury had tried and convicted Beard in the same
courtroom where Betty Jean Owens faced her attackers. Judge W. May Walker presided, and
William D. Hopkins served as the state prosecutor. Harry Michaels, Patrick Scarborough’s
attorney in 1959, served as Beard’s court-appointed attorney in 1954. Both the “little Scottsboro”
and the Beard cases revealed the extent to which the protection of white women served as the
ultimate symbol of white male power and the foundation of white supremacy. When African
Americans in Tallahassee demanded equal justice for Betty Jean Owens, that foundation began
to crumble.36
News that four white men would actually face prosecution for raping a black woman
plunged both whites and blacks into largely unfamiliar territory. It not only highlighted the bitter
ironies of segregation and “social equality” but allowed African Americans to publicize them.
According to the Pittsburgh Courier, the arraignment made the “arguments for white supremacy,
racial discrimination, and segregation fall by the wayside” and the arguments against school
desegregation seem “childishly futile.” “Time and again,” another newspaper editor argued,
“Southern spokesmen have protested that they oppose integration in the schools only because it
foreshadows a total ‘mingling of the races.’ The implication is that Negroes are hell-bent for
intimacy, while whites shrink back in horror.” “Perhaps,” the writer argued, “as Lillian Smith and
other maverick Southerners have suggested, it is not quite that simple.”37
While prominent members of the white community expressed their shock and horror at the
rape, they continued to stumble into old narratives about race and sex. The indictment helped
incite age-old fears of miscegenation and stereotypes of the so-called black beast rapist. William
H. Chafe argues that “merely evoking the image of ‘miscegenation’ could often suffice to ring the
alarm bells that would mobilize a solid phalanx of white resistance to change.” For example,
white women around Tallahassee began to speak openly about their “fear of retaliation,” while
young white couples avoided parking “in the country moonlight lest some Negroes should be out
hunting in a retaliatory mood.” Reflecting this fear as well as the larger concern with social
equality, Florida legislators, like other lawmakers throughout the South, passed a series of racist
bills designed to segregate children in schools by sex in order to circumvent the Brown v. Board
of Education decision and “reduce the chances of interracial marriage.”38 The extent to which
the myth of the black beast rapist was a projection of white fears was never clearer than when the
gang rape of a black woman conjured up terror of black-on-white rape. The fact that the black
community rallied around Betty Jean Owens and her womanhood threatened white male
power—making the myth of the black savage a timely political tool.
Black leaders from all over the country eagerly used the rape case for their own political
purposes as well. Most focused on the lynching of black men in similar cases, placing the crime
against Betty Jean Owens into a larger dialogue about the power struggle between black and
white men. As A. D. Williams, a black businessman in Tallahassee, put it, “the white men are on
the spot.” Rev. Dennis H. Jamison felt that the indictment of four white men indicated a “better
chance at Justice than any involving the races in the South,” but, he added, “still no white men
have ever been executed.” Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, expressed this
viewpoint forcefully. Using almost the exact same language as white supremacists, he accused
the “four devil rapists” of destroying the “virginity of our daughters.” “Appeals for justice,” he
fumed, “will avail us nothing. We know there is no justice under the American flag.”39 Nearly
all the editorials in major black newspapers echoed his sentiments.
Ella Baker, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), felt that the
evidence in the Tallahassee case was so strong that “not even an all white Florida jury could fail
to convict.” Reminding whites of their tendency to mete out unequal justice toward black men,
she warned, “with memories of Negroes who have been lynched and executed on far less
evidence, Negro leaders from all over the South will certainly examine every development in this
case…. What will Florida’s answer be?” The New York Amsterdam News called for equal justice,
noting that the “law which calls for the death sentence does not say that Negro rapists should be
punished by death and white rapists should be allowed to live.” The Pittsburgh Courier bet on
acquittal, despite the fact that the case “is as open and shut as a case can be.”40
Martin Luther King Jr., at the annual SCLC meeting in Tallahassee a few days after the
indictment, praised the student protesters for giving “hope to all of us who struggle for human
dignity and equal justice.” But he tempered his optimism with political savvy, calling on the
federal government to force the country to practice what it preached in its Cold War rivalry with
the Soviet Union. “Violence in the South can not be deplored or ignored,” King declared,
directing his criticism at President Dwight D. Eisenhower; “without effective action, the situation
will worsen.”41 King exploited a political context in which America’s racial problems were
increasingly an international issue. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcast
segments of the Florida A&M University student speeches condemning the rape and racial
injustice, while newspapers throughout Europe closely watched the case unfold. “It is ironical
that these un-American outrages occur as our representatives confer in Geneva to expand
democratic principles … it might well be necessary and expedient,” King threatened, “to appeal
to the conscience of the world through the Commission on Human Rights of the United
Nations.” This international angle was a strategy shared by mainstream integrationists, leftist
radicals, and black nationalists alike. Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, leader of the Universal
Association of Ethiopian Women, Inc., petitioned the United Nations Human Rights
Commission in person to end the “planned lynch terror and willful destruction of our people.”
She tied issues of race, gender, sex, and citizenship together by demanding Justice Department
assistance for Betty Jean Owens’s rape case, an FBI investigation of the Mack Charles Parker
lynching, and basic voting rights.42
This cartoon, featured in an African American newspaper, places sexual violence at the center of
the civil rights campaign for equal justice. It also demonstrates African Americans’ belief that
historically, southern white men went unpunished for sexually assaulting black women, even
when they admitted to the crime. Courtesy Baltimore Afro-American, May 16, 1959.
Robert F. Williams, militant leader of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP,
suggested African Americans stand their ground and defend themselves. The Parker lynching,
the Tallahassee rape case, and two Monroe, North Carolina, cases in which white men stood
accused of attacking black women forced Williams to defend racial pride and black womanhood.
On May 6, 1959, B. F. Shaw, a white railroad engineer, had been exonerated on charges of
beating and kicking a black maid at the Hotel Monroe, even though he did not show up for court.
That same day, white jurors giggled while Mrs. Mary Ruth Reed, a pregnant black woman,
testified that Lewis Medlin, a white mechanic, beat and sexually assaulted her in front of her five
children. Medlin’s attorney argued that he was just having a little fun, that he was married to a
“lovely white woman … the pure flower of life,” whom he would not dare leave for “that.” The
jury deliberated for less than ten minutes before returning the not guilty verdict. It was the
defilement of black womanhood and the humiliation of black manhood that inspired Williams to
hurl his infamous vow to “meet violence with violence.” His exhortation set off a national
controversy, culminating at the 1959 NAACP convention where Executive Secretary Roy
Wilkins suspended Williams for his remarks. Williams defended his position by citing the
tragedy in Tallahassee. Had the “young black men who escorted the coed who was raped in
Tallahassee” been able to defend her, Williams argued, they would have been justified “even
though it meant that they themselves or the white rapists were killed.”43
Roy Wilkins shared Williams’s gender and race politics but not his methods for achieving
them. In a letter to Florida governor LeRoy Collins, Wilkins invoked the lynchings of Mack
Charles Parker and Emmett Till, noting that the victims’ skin color alone kept them from
receiving a fair trial and that their deaths threatened political embarrassment at home and abroad.
“Full punishment has been certain and swift in cases involving a white victim and a Negro
accused,” he said, “but the penalty has neither been certain nor heavy in cases involving a Negro
victim and a white accused … for these reasons,” Wilkins warned, “all eyes will be upon the state
of Florida.”44
On June 11, 1959, at least four hundred people witnessed Betty Jean Owens face her attackers
and testify on her own behalf. Owens approached the witness box with her head bowed. She
wore a white embroidered blouse and a black-and-salmon checked skirt with gold earrings. The
African American press had cast her in the role of respectable womanhood by characterizing her
as a God-fearing, middle-class college co-ed “raised in a hard-working Christian household”
with parents devoted to the “simple verities of life that make up the backbone of our democracy.”
Unlike white women, who were often able to play the role of “fair maiden” before a lynch mob
worked its will on their alleged attackers, Betty Jean Owens had to tell her story knowing that the
four white men who raped her might go unpunished. Worse, Owens had to describe the attack in
front of hundreds of white people in a segregated institution that inherently denied her
humanity.45 Though it may seem unnecessary, even lurid, to bear witness to the details of her
testimony today, it is crucial that we hear the same testimony that the jurors heard. Owens’s
willingness to identify those who attacked her and to testify against them in public broke the
institutional silence surrounding the centuries-long history of white men’s sexual violation of
black women, made a white southern judge and jury recognize her womanhood and dignity, and
countered efforts to shame or stereotype her as sexually unchaste. As a result, her testimony
alone is a momentous event.
Owens remained strong as state prosecutor William Hopkins asked her to detail the attack
from the moment she and her friends left the Florida A&M dance. This she did powerfully and
emotionally. “We were only parked near Jake Gaither Park for fifteen minutes,” she said, when
“four white men pulled up in a 1959 blue Chevrolet.” She identified Patrick Scarborough as the
man who pressed the shotgun into her date’s nose and yelled, “Get out and get out now.” When
Owens began to cry, David Beagles pressed a “wicked looking foot long knife” to her throat and
forced her down to the ground. He then pulled her up, slapped her, and said, “You haven’t
anything to worry about.” Owens testified that Beagles pushed her into the car and then “pushed
my head down in his lap and yelled at me to be quiet or I would never get home.” “I knew I
couldn’t get away,” she stated; “I thought they would kill me if I didn’t do what they wanted me
to do.”46
She continued with the horrid details. As the car pulled off the highway and into the woods,
“the one with the knife pulled me out of the car and laid me on the ground.” Owens was still
wearing the gold and white evening gown as they tugged at the dress and “pulled my panties
off.” She pleaded with them to let her go and not hurt her when Beagles slapped her again. She
then told how each one raped her while she was “begging them to let me go … I was so scared,
but there was nothing I could do with four men, a knife, and a gun … I couldn’t do anything but
what they said.” Owens testified that the men eagerly watched one another have intercourse with
her the first time around but lost interest during the second round. “Two of them were working
on taking the car’s license plate off,” she said, “while the oldest one” offered her some whiskey.
“I never had a chance to get away,” she said quietly; “I was on the ground for two or three hours
before the one with the knife pushed me back into the car.” After the men had collectively raped
her seven times, Ollie Stoutamire and Beagles blindfolded her with a baby diaper and pushed her
onto the floorboards of the car, and they all drove away. When she heard the police sirens and
felt the car stop, she pulled the blindfold down and began yelling for help. After police ordered
the men out of the car, Owens recalled, “I was so scared and weak and nervous that I just fell on
the ground and that is the last thing I remember.”47
Betty Jean Owens then described the physical injuries she sustained from the attack. “One
arm and one leg,” she said, “were practically useless” to her for several days while she was at the
hospital. A nurse had to accompany her to the grand jury hearing a few days after the attack, and
she needed medication for severe depression. She also had a large bruise on her breast where the
bodice stay from her dress dug into her skin as the four men pressed their bodies into hers.
Asking her to identify some of the exhibits, Hopkins flipped open the switchblade used the night
of the attack, startling some of the jurors. Immediately the four defense attorneys jumped up and
vehemently called for a mistrial, arguing that “by flashing the knife Mr. Hopkins tried to inflame
the jury and this prejudiced their clients’ constitutional rights to a fair trial.” Judge Walker denied
their motion, signaling Hopkins to continue. When asked whether she consented, Owens clearly
told Hopkins and the jury, “No sir, I did not.” 48
Defense attorneys grilled Owens for more than an hour, trying to prove that she consented
because she never struggled to get away and that she actually enjoyed the sexual encounter.
“Didn’t you derive any pleasure from that? Didn’t you?” the attorney Howard Williams yelled
repeatedly. He kept pressing her, “Why didn’t you yell or scream out?” “I was afraid they would
kill me,” Owens said quietly. She showed signs of anger when Williams repeatedly asked if she
was a virgin in an attempt to characterize her as a stereotypical black jezebel. Owens retained her
composure, refused to answer questions about her chastity, and resisted efforts to shame her. The
defense made a last-ditch effort to discredit Owens by arguing that, if the young men had
actually raped her and threatened her life, she would have sustained more severe injuries.49
Proceeding with the state’s case, William Hopkins called the doctors, both black and white,
who examined Owens after the attack. They told the jury that they found her in a terrible
condition and that she “definitely had sexual relations” that caused the injuries that required a
five-day hospital stay. Richard Brown, Thomas Butterfield, and Edna Richardson took the stand
next. They all corroborated Owens’s testimony, adding that after the attack Owens was “crying,
hysterical, and jerking all over.” Brown testified that Scarborough pointed the shotgun into his
car window and ordered him and Butterfield to kneel in front of its headlights. Defense attorney
John Rudd asked Brown on cross-examination, was it a “single or double barrel shotgun they
pointed into your car?” Brown replied, “I only saw one barrel, sir.” Laughter rolled down from
the balcony, upsetting Rudd. “I can not work with this duress and disorder at my back, a boy’s
life is at stake here!” Judge Walker called for order and reprimanded the spectators. 50 When
the prosecution finally rested its case at 8:30 p.m. on June 11, defense attorneys moved for a
directed verdict of acquittal, claiming the state failed to prove anything except sexual
intercourse. Judge Walker vigorously denied the motion and insisted the defense return the next
day to present their defense.
Amid a sea of people in the tiny courtroom, David Beagles, an eighteen-year-old high school
student, sat rigidly on the stand, pushing a ring back and forth on his finger as he answered
questions from his attorney. His mother buried her head in her arms as she listened to her son tell
the jury his side of the story. Beagles testified that he had a knife and William Collinsworth had
a shotgun. The four of them were out “looking around for Negroes who had been parking near
Collinsworth’s neighborhood and bothering them.” When they came upon the Florida A&M
students, Beagles admitted holding the switchblade but then said he put it away when he saw
they were dressed in formal wear. He admitted that they ordered Brown and Butterfield to drive
away but insisted that he “asked the girls to get into the car.” He denied the rape, arguing that
Owens consented and even asked them to take her “back to school to change her dress.” Under
cross-examination, Beagles admitted that he “pushed her, just once … not hard,” into the car, that
he said, “If you do what we want you to, we’ll let you go,” and that he blindfolded her with a
diaper after the attack. Defense attorney Howard Williams then asked Judge Walker to remove
the jury as Beagles detailed the confession he made the night of the crime. Williams argued that
when police officers arrested the young men, they “were still groggy from a night of drinking,”
making their confessions inadmissible. Under Hopkins’s cross-examination, however, Beagles
admitted that he was not pressured to say anything, that his confession was voluntary, and that he
actually looked over the written statement and made an adjustment.51
Patrick Scarborough, who admitted that he was married to a woman in Texas, testified that
he had intercourse with Owens twice but emphatically denied using force. When Hopkins
questioned him, Scarborough admitted that Owens pleaded, “please don’t hurt me,” but he
insisted that she offered “no resistance.” He denied kissing her at first and then said he kissed her
on the neck while he had sex with her.52
Defense attorneys focused on discrediting Owens instead of defending their clients because
the prosecution repeatedly drew self-incriminating information from them. State prosecutor
Hopkins argued that “they simply have no defense.” Defense attorneys tried to use each man’s
ignorance to prove his innocence, highlighting their low IQ’s and poor educations. When that
failed, they detailed the dysfunctional histories of each defendant, as though to diminish the
viciousness of the crime by offering a rationale for the men’s depravity. Character witnesses for
William Collinsworth, for example, described his sordid home life and drinking problem. Nearly
every member of Collinsworth’s family took the stand, spilling sorrowful stories about their
poverty and dysfunction. His sister, Maudine Reeves, broke down on the stand and had to be
rushed to the hospital. His wife, Pearlie, told the jury through sobs and tears that he was “not
himself when he was drunk,” but when he was sober “you couldn’t ask for a better husband.” On
the stand, she failed to mention what her letter to the judge had made explicit: that her husband
regularly beat her. When that did not seem to work, defense attorneys switched gears and
attempted to portray their clients as reputable young men who were incapable of rape. Friends
and family members all testified that these young men “were good boys,” and that in particular
Ollie Stoutamire, a cousin of Tallahassee police chief Frank Stoutamire, had “nothing but pure
and moral intentions.”53
Finally, the defense appealed to the jury’s prejudices. Collinsworth blamed his actions on the
“Indian blood” pulsing through his veins; the Pensacola psychiatrist Dr. W. M. C. Wilhoit
backed him up when he argued, “It is a known fact that individuals of the Indian race react
violently and primitively when psychotic or intoxicated.” When Collinsworth added alcohol to
his “Indian blood,” Wilhoit argued, “he was unable to discern the nature and quality of the crime
in question.” The attorney for Ollie Stoutamire, city judge John Rudd, blamed “outside
agitators.” The defendants are “being publicized and ridiculed to satisfy sadists and people in
other places,” Rudd yelled during closing arguments. “Look at that little skinny, long legged
sixteen-year-old boy. Does he look like a mad rapist who should die … should we kill or
incarcerate that little boy because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?”54
In their summations to the jury, defense attorneys S. Gunter Toney and Harry Michaels
followed Rudd’s lead. Michaels insisted that “the crime here is insignificant … the pressure,
clamor, and furor are completely out of proportion.” Pointing to Scarborough, Michaels told the
jury, “his motives, intentions, and designs that night were wholesome, innocent and decent.” The
fact that Owens could “have easily walked ten feet into the woods where nobody could find her,”
Michaels said, proved she consented. Waving her gold and white gown in front of the jury, he
pointed out that it was “not soiled or torn,” which he said proved no brutality was involved.
Finally, he called for an acquittal, arguing that the jury could not possibly convict on the basis of
“only one witness—the victim, and confessions that admitted only one fact—sexual intercourse.”
Sitting in the segregated balcony, Charles U. Smith, a sociologist at Florida A&M University,
said he gasped when he heard Howard Williams yell, “Are you going to believe this nigger
wench over these four boys?”55
In his summation, prosecuting attorney William Hopkins jumped up, grabbed the shotgun
and Betty Jean Owens’s prom dress, and appealed to the jury for a conviction.
Suppose two colored boys and their moron friends attacked Mrs. Beagles’ daughter … had taken
her at gunpoint from a car and forced her into a secluded place and regardless of whether they
secured her consent or not, had intercourse with her seven times, leaving her in such a condition
that she collapsed and had to be hospitalized?
Betty Jean Owens, he said, “didn’t have a chance in the world with four big boys, a loaded gun
and a knife. She was within an inch of losing her life … she was gang-raped SEVEN times.”
“When you get to the question of mercy,” he told the jury, “consider that they wouldn’t even let
that little girl whimper.”56
Restless spectators, squeezed into every corner of the segregated courthouse, piled back into
their seats when jurors emerged after three hours of deliberation with a decision. An additional
three hundred African Americans held a silent vigil outside. A. H. King, the jury foreman and a
local plantation owner, slowly read aloud the jury’s decision for all four defendants: “guilty with
a recommendation for mercy.” The recommendation for mercy saved the four men from the
electric chair and, according to the Baltimore Afro-American, “made it inescapably clear that the
death penalty for rape is only for colored men accused by white women.” A. H. King defended
the mercy ruling by arguing that “there was no brutality involved” and insisted, implausibly
enough, that the decision would have been the same “if the defendants had been four
Negroes.”57 Judge Walker deferred sentencing for fifteen days, cleared the courtroom, and sent
the four white men to Raiford prison.
African Americans who attended the trial quietly made their way home after the bittersweet
verdict. Betty Jean Owens’s mother told reporters that she was “just happy that the jury upheld
my daughter’s womanhood.” Rev. A. J. Reddick, former head of the Florida NAACP, snapped,
“If it had been Negroes, they would have gotten the death penalty.” “Florida,” he said, “has
maintained an excellent record of not veering from its pattern of never executing a white man for
the rape of a Negro,” but he acknowledged that the conviction was “a step forward.” Betty Jean
Owens showed a similar ambivalence in an interview by the New York Amsterdam News. “It is
something,” she said; “I’m grateful that twelve white men believed the truth, but I still wonder
what they would have done if one of our boys raped a white girl.”58
Florida A&M students, who had criticized Butterfield and Brown for failing to protect black
womanhood a week earlier, were visibly upset after the trial. In fact, letters to the editors of
many African American newspapers condemned the two men and all black men for failing to
protect “their” women. Mrs. C. A. C. in New York City felt that all Negro men were “mice” and
not worthy of respect because “they stand by and let the white men do anything they want to our
women.” She then warned all black men that they “would never have freedom until [they] learn
to stand up and fight.” In a letter to the Baltimore Afro-American, a black man accepted her
challenge: “unless we decide to protect our own women,” he argued, “none of them will be safe.”
Some African American women felt they should protect themselves. A white woman sent her
black maid home one day after she came to work with a knife, “in case any white man came after
her,” reported the Tallahassee Democrat. Still, many felt that “someone should have burned.”59
Despite their anger at the unequal justice meted out, some African Americans in the
community considered the guilty verdict a victory. The Reverend C. K. Steele Jr., head of the
Tallahassee chapter of the SCLC, said it showed progress, reminding others that four white men
“wouldn’t have even been arrested twenty years ago.” The Reverend Leon A. Lowery, state
president of the Florida NAACP, saw a strategy in the mercy recommendation. He thought that it
could help “Negroes more in the long run” by setting a precedent for equal justice in future rape
cases.60 After Judge Walker handed down life sentences to the four white men, some African
Americans in Tallahassee applauded what they felt was a significant step in the right direction;
many others, however, exhibited outrage. Roy Wilkins openly praised the verdict as a move
toward equal justice but acknowledged in a private letter the “glaring contrast that was furnished
by the Tallahassee verdict.” In light of the recent lynching of Mack Charles Parker, no one really
had to wonder what would have happened had the attackers been black. Editors of the Louisiana
Weekly called the trial a “figment and a farce” and insisted that anyone who praised the verdict
“confesses that he sees nothing wrong with exacting one punishment for white offenders and
another, more severe for others.”61
Any conviction was too much for some whites who felt that sending four white men to jail
for raping a black woman upset the entire foundation of white supremacy. Many believed the
guilty verdict was the result of a Communist-inspired NAACP conspiracy, which would
ultimately lead to miscegenation. Letters to Judge Walker featured a host of common fears and
racist stereotypes of black men and women. Fred G. Millette reminded the judge that a
conviction “would play into the hands of the Warren Court, the NAACP, and all other radical
enemies of the South … even though the nigger wench probably had been with a dozen men
before.” Mrs. Laura Cox wrote to Judge Walker that she feared this case would strengthen
desegregation efforts, posing a direct threat to white children who might attend integrated
schools. “If the South is integrated,” she argued, “white children will be in danger because the
Negroes carry knives, razors, ice picks, and guns practically all the time.” Petitioning Judge
Walker for leniency, Mrs. Bill Aren reminded him to remember that “Negro women like to be
raped by the white men” and that “something like this will help the Supreme Court force this low
bred race ahead, making whites live and eat with him and allow his children to associate with the
little apes, grow up and marry them.”62
It is ironic that a rape case involving a black woman and four white men would conjure up
images of the black brute chasing white women with the intent to mongrelize the white race. The
Tallahassee case attests to the persistence of such images decades after Reconstruction, when the
mythological “incubus” took flight, justifying mob violence and a reign of terror throughout the
South. Anxieties about the black beast rapist and fears of miscegenation conveniently surfaced
when white men feared losing their monopoly on power. As Frederick Douglass noted nearly a
century earlier, the myth of the black man as a rapist was an “invention with a well defined
motive.”63 The rape of Betty Jean Owens reminds us that the maintenance of white supremacy
relied on both the racial and sexual domination of black men and women.
While the verdict was likely the confluence of localized issues—a politically mobilized
middle-class African American community, the lower-class status of the defendants (who were
politically expendable), Florida’s status as a “moderate” southern state dependent on northern
tourism, and media pressure—it had far-reaching consequences.64 The Tallahassee case focused
national attention on the sexual exploitation of black women at the hands of white men, leading
to convictions elsewhere that summer. In Montgomery, Alabama, Grady F. Smith, a retired air
force colonel, was sentenced to fourteen months of hard labor for raping a seventeen-year-old
African American girl. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Ralph Lee Betts, a thirty-six-year-old white
man, was sentenced to life imprisonment for kidnapping and molesting an eleven-year-old
African American girl. And in Burton, South Carolina, an all-white jury sent a white marine
named Fred Davis to the electric chair—a first in the history of the South—for raping a fortyseven-
year-old African American woman. In each case, white supremacy faltered in the face of
the courageous black women who testified on their own behalf.65
Betty Jean Owens’s grandmother recognized the historic and political significance of the
verdicts. “I’ve lived to see the day,” she said, “where white men would really be brought to trial
for what they did.” John McCray, editor of the South Carolina Light-house and Informer,
wondered if the convictions in Tallahassee and elsewhere pointed to “defensive steps” taken by
the South to “belatedly try to disprove that it discriminates against colored people.” Still, he
realized the importance of guilty verdicts. “This forced intimacy,” he argued “goes back to the
days of slavery when our women were the chattel property of white men.” For McCray, the life
sentences indicated a new day: “Are we now witnessing the arrival of our women? Are they at
long last gaining the emancipation they’ve needed?”66
John McCray’s connection between the conviction of white men for raping black women and
black women’s emancipation raises important questions that historians are just beginning to
ponder. How did the daily struggle to gain self-respect and dignity, rooted in ideas of what it
meant to be men and women, play out in the black freedom struggle? It is not just a coincidence
that black college students, struggling for their own identity and independence, sparked the sit-in
movement soon after Betty Jean Owens was brutally raped. In Tallahassee, Patricia Stephens
Due, who felt that the rape symbolized an attack on the dignity and humanity of all African
Americans, organized the city’s first Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter just six weeks
after Owens’s trial. Florida A&M CORE members launched an uneventful sit-in campaign that
fall, but, like other black students throughout the South, successfully desegregated local lunch
counters, theaters, and department stores in the spring of 1960. The students later led the “jail, no
bail” tactic popularized by SCLC and SNCC.67 While the rape alone may not have been the
galvanizing force that turned students into soldiers for freedom, the sexual and racial dynamics
inherent in this case speak to larger themes in the African American freedom struggle.
The politics of respectability—Betty Jean Owens’s middle-class background, her college
education, and her chastity—may have enabled African Americans on the local and national
level to break through the “culture of dissemblance” and speak out against her rape. But it was
the convergence of the politics of respectability, Owens’s testimony, and African Americans’
growing political influence on the national and international stage in the late 1950s that made the
legal victory possible. Still, the long tradition of black women’s testimony, stretching back to
slavery and Reconstruction, makes it clear that some elements of the Tallahassee case were not
aberrations. The testimonies and trials of Betty Jean Owens, Gertrude Perkins, and Recy Taylor,
to name just a few, bear witness to these issues, forcing historians to reconsider the individual
threads that make up the fabric of African American politics. Black women not only dissembled
where it was necessary but testified where it was possible. Not only silence but often protest
surrounded the sexualized violence against African American women. If we are fully to
understand the role of gender and sexuality in larger struggles for freedom and equality, we must
explore these battles over manhood and womanhood, frequently set in the context of sexualized
violence, that remain at the volatile core of the modern civil rights movement.
Danielle L. McGuire is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Rutgers University. This essay received
the 2004 Louis Pelzer Memorial Award.
This article would not have been possible without the gracious historians, teachers, family,
and friends who always seemed willing to go out of their way to provide encouragement,
support, and intellectual engagement. For this I am eternally grateful. Thank you especially to
Steven Lawson, Nancy Hewitt, Tim Tyson, and Steve Kantrowitz and the Harmony Bar Writers
Collective, all of whom spilled gallons of ink on this essay. They are members of a beloved
community that is made up of some of the best folks around. A hearty thanks goes out to
Davarian Baldwin, Martha Bouyer, Herman Bennett, David S. Cecelski, Bill Chafe, Paul
Clemens, Dorothy Sue Cobble, John Dittmer, Lisa Elliott, Ann Fabian, Glenda Gilmore,
Christina Greene, Darlene Clark Hine, Charles Hughes, William Jones, Temma Kaplan, Le Club,
Jan Lewis, Tim and Dee McGuire, Richard and Grace McGuire, Katherine Mellen, Jennifer
Morgan, Perri Morgan, Adam Rosh, Karl and Marcia Rosh, Regan Shelton, Phyllis St. Michael,
Stephen Tuck, William L. Van Deburg, Craig Werner, and Deborah Gray White. I am also
grateful to Joanne Meyerowitz, Kathleen Brown, Victoria Walcott, and the anonymous referees
of this essay for their insightful comments and criticisms.
Readers may contact McGuire at <[email protected]>.
1 New York Amsterdam News, June 20, 1959, p. 37. Jimmy Carl Cooper, a white youth, testified
that David Beagles told him he planned to go out and get “some nigger ‘stuff'” and noted that
“stuff was not the word used”: Trezzvant W. Anderson, “Rapists Missed Out on First Selection,”
Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1959, p. 3. A cleaned-up version reported that Beagles had plans to
get a “Negro girl”: “Four Convicted in Rape Case,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 14, 1959, p. 7.
“I Was Scared,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1959, p. 1. “Four Begin Defense in Trial on Rape,”
New York Times, June 13, 1959, p. A13. See also criminal case file #3445, State of Florida v.
Patrick Gene Scarborough, David Ervin Beagles, Ollie Odell Stoutamire, and William Ted
Collinsworth, 1959 (Leon County Courthouse, Tallahassee, Fla.) (copy in Danielle L. McGuire’s
possession). Thanks to the Leon County Courthouse for sending me the file. Because the original
trial transcript is no longer available, I have had to rely on newspaper reports, particularly those
in African American newspapers: the Baltimore Afro-American, the Louisiana Weekly, the New
York Amsterdam News, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the South Carolina Lighthouse and Informer.
The fact that the transcript is missing is verified in the case file notes of Patrick G. Scarborough
v. State of Florida, 390 So. 2d 830 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App., 1980). See also Robert W. Saunders,
“Report on Tallahassee Incident,” May 9, 1959, box A91, series III, National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People Papers (Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington,
D.C.). Thanks to Timothy B. Tyson for finding this information for me.
2 The murders of Emmett Till in 1955 and Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James
Chaney in 1963 are considered pivotal moments in the civil rights movement. Their stories are
given prominent attention in the PBSEyes on the Prize series and Hollywood films such as the
1988 thriller Mississippi Burning. For monographs on these murders, see, for example, Nicolaus
Mills, Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning Point of the Civil Rights Movement
in America (Chicago, 1992); and Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of
Emmett Till (Baltimore, 1991).
3 Historians have only recently begun to explore how gender and sexuality affected the civil
rights movement. Early efforts to include gender often took the form of “a women’s history
tacked onto men’s history of civil rights”: Steven F. Lawson, “Civil Rights and Black
Liberation,” in A Companion to American Women’s History, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt (Oxford, Eng.,
2002), 411. On the ways women changed the civil rights movement and how it changed their
lives as well, see, for example, Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods,
eds., Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941–1965 (New
York, 1990); and Belinda Robnett, How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the
Struggle for Civil Rights (New York, 1997). Recent works place black and white women and
their long-standing traditions of community organizing and resistance in the forefront of the
movement; see, for example, Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing
Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, 1995); and Barbara Ransby, Ella
Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, 2003).
4 On the “culture of dissemblance,” see Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black
Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on a Culture of Dissemblance,”Signs, 14
(Summer 1989), 912–20.
5 On the way gender and sexuality structured racial slavery, see, for example, Kathleen Brown,
Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs (Chapel Hill, 1996), 128–36; Kirsten
Fischer, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (Ithaca, 2002);
and Deborah Gray White, Arn’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York,
6 Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (New York,
1972), 172. See also, for example, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “‘The Mind That Burns in Each Body’:
Women, Rape, and Racial Violence,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann
Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York, 1983), 328–49; and Leslie A.
Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina
(Urbana, 1997), 37, 44–45, 119–21.
7 Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the
Civil War (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 34. Winthrop Jordan, White over Black: American
Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), 141. Frances Thompson quoted in
Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America, 174–75; Harriet Simril quoted ibid., 183–85; see
also Hannah Rosen, “‘Not That Sort of Woman’: Race, Gender, and Sexual Violence during the
Memphis Riot of 1866,” in Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History,
ed. Martha Hodes (New York, 1999), 267–93. Essic Harris quoted in Elsa Barkley Brown,
“Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the
Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” Public Culture, 7 (1994), 112n8; Ferdie Walker quoted in
William Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad, eds., Remembering Jim Crow: African
Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South (New York, 2001), 9–10.
8 John H. McCray, “South’s Courts Show New Day of Justice,” Baltimore Afro-American, July
11, 1959. Theralene Beachem interview by McGuire, March 19, 2003, audiotape (in McGuire’s
possession); Gloria Dennard interview by McGuire, March 19, 2003, audiotape, ibid.; Linda S.
Hunt interview by McGuire, March 19, 2003, audiotape, ibid.; Mrs. Lucille M. Johnson
interview by McGuire, March 16, 2003, audiotape, ibid.
9 Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana, 1999), 9. On the
“perilous intersection of race, gender, and sexualized brutality,” see Timothy B. Tyson, Radio
Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill, 1999), 2, 94. Though
over a half century old, two of the best articulations of the sexual subtext of segregation that exist
are John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (Madison, 1937); and Lillian Smith,
Killers of the Dream (New York, 1949).
10 Lee, For Freedom’s Sake, 9–10, 78–81. Although Lee argues that Hamer was “inclined to
dissemble when it came to sex, race, and violence” (ibid., 78–81), Lee’s own evidence suggests
that Hamer testified publicly to the sexualized aspects of her beating in Winona, Mississippi, and
her forced sterilization as often as she kept them hidden; see ibid., 54, 59, 79, 80–81, 89, 198n42,
196n2. See also Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (New York,
11 See Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–
1994 (New York, 1999), 60–66. John Lewis Adams, “‘Arkansas Needs Leadership’: Daisy Bates,
Black Arkansas, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (M.A.
thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2003). Thanks to John Adams for sharing his research
with me. On “reversing the shame,” see Temma Kaplan, “Reversing the Shame and Gendering
the Memory,”Signs, 28 (Autumn 2002), 179–99. Jo Ann Robinson, The Montgomery Bus
Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, ed. David J.
Garrow (Knoxville, 1987), 37.
12 On the impact of World War II, see, for example, Timothy B. Tyson, “Wars for Democracy:
African American Militancy and Interracial Violence in North Carolina during World War II,” in
Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, ed. David Cecelski and
Timothy B. Tyson (Chapel Hill, 1998), 254–75; and Harvard Sitkoff, “Racial Militancy and
Interracial Violence in the Second World War,” Journal of American History, 58 (Dec. 1971),
661–81. My preliminary dissertation research indicates that African Americans throughout the
South used World War II as a wedge to publicize southern injustice, especially sexual violence
by white men. Between 1942 and 1950, African American women accused white men of rape,
testified about their assaults, and sparked community mobilization efforts in a number of
southern towns, often securing convictions, mostly on minor charges with small fines assessed.
13 Fred Atwater, “$600 to Rape Wife? Alabama Whites Make Offer to Recy Taylor Mate,”
Chicago Defender, n.d., clipping, Recy Taylor case, folder 2, Administrative Files, Gov.
Chauncey Sparks Papers, 1943–1947 (Alabama Department of Archives and History,
Montgomery); N. W. Kimbrough and J. V. Kitchens, “Report to Governor Chauncey Sparks,”
Dec. 14, 1944, ibid.; John O. Harris, N. W. Kimbrough, and J. V. Kitchens to Gov. Chauncey
Sparks, “Supplemental Report, December 27, 1944,” ibid. See also “Grand Jury Refuses to Indict
Attackers,” Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 24, 1945, folder 3, ibid.; “This Evening,” Birmingham
News, Feb. 21, 1945, ibid.; and “Second Grand Jury Finds No Bill in Negro’s Charges,” Dothan
Eagle, Feb. 15, 1945, ibid.
14 On Scottsboro’s political infrastructure, see Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the
American South (New York, 1971); and James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (New York,
1994). Over thirty national labor unions and many more locals supported Recy Taylor. See
“Press release,” Feb. 3, 1945, folder 4, box 430, Earl Conrad Collection (Cayuga Community
College Library, Auburn, N.Y.). Other organizations that played an active role in Recy Taylor’s
defense include the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the National Council of Negro
Women, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the National Negro Congress, the International
Labor Defense, and the Birmingham and Montgomery branches of the NAACP: “Partial Sponsor
List,” Dec. 28, 1944, ibid.; Earl Conrad, Eugene Gordon, and Henrietta Buckmaster, “Equal
Justice under Law,” pamphlet draft, ibid.
15 See Kimbrough and Kitchens, “Report to Governor Chauncey Sparks”; Harris, Kimbrough,
and Kitchens to Sparks, “Supplemental Report.” See also “Grand Jury Refuses to Indict
Attackers,” Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 24, 1945; “Dixie Sex Crimes against Negro Women
Widespread,” Chicago Defender, n.d., Scrapbook Collection, Conrad Collection; “Alabama
Rapists Came from Church to Join White Gang in Sex Crime,” Chicago Defender, March 24,
1945, ibid.; and “Alabama Has No Race Problem, Claims Official,” Chicago Defender, n.d., ibid.
16 See Montgomery Advertiser, April 5, 1949, p. 8A; ibid., April 6, 1949, p. 1B; ibid., April 7,
1949, p. 2A; S. S. Seay, I Was There by the Grace of God (Montgomery, 1990), 130–31. “Drew
Pearson Changes Mind; Criticizes City,” Montgomery Advertiser, May 3, 1949, p. 1A; ibid.,
May 21, 1949, p. 1A; “Anglo-Saxon System of Justice,” ibid., May 22, 1949, p. 2B.
17 “Rape Cry against Dixie Cops Fall on Deaf Ears,” Baltimore Afro-American, April 9, 1949, p.
1; Stewart Burns, ed., Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (Chapel Hill, 1997),
7; Joe Azbell quoted in “Cradle of the Confederacy,” transcript, Will the Circle Be Unbroken,
Southern Regional Council Web site (March 1997; not currently available; printout in McGuire’s
possession). Rufus A. Lewis story in Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided
History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York, 1998), 34.
18 Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York,
1988), 130. Marissa Chappell, Jenny Hutchinson, and Brian Ward, “‘Dress modestly, neatly … as
if you were going to church’: Respectability, Class, and Gender in the Montgomery Bus Boycott
and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” in Gender in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Peter J. Ling
and Sharon Monteith (New York, 1999), 87. Branch, Parting the Waters, 130.
19 Black leaders in Montgomery decided against using the arrests of Claudette Colvin, an unwed
pregnant teenager, and Mary Louise Smith, the daughter of a local drunk, as test cases for
desegregating the buses; see Branch, Parting the Waters, 123–28; Lynn Olson, Freedom’s
Daughters: The Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830–1970 (New York,
2001), 94–95; and Chappell, Hutchinson, and Ward, “‘Dress modestly, neatly … as if you were
going to church, ‘” 84.
20 Neil R. McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second
Reconstruction, 1954–1964 (Urbana, 1994), 184, 186; see also Numan V. Bartley, The Rise of
Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s (Baton Rouge, 1969), 83–
84; and Tom P. Brady, Black Monday: Segregation or Amalgamation, America Has Its Choice
(Winona, Miss., 1955). The White Citizens’ Councils counted approximately 250,000 members
throughout the South.
21 Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West,” 915.
22 Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere,” 146.
23 Historians of the modern day civil rights movement are beginning to build upon work that
chronicled the ways respectability, dignity, and manhood and womanhood shaped the strategies
and goals of the middle- and working-class black activists during Reconstruction and the
Progressive Era; see, for example, Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the
Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill, 1999); and Evelyn
Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist
Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).
24 “Deputy Tells of Confessions,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 12, 1959.
25 Saunders, “Report on Tallahassee Incident.”
26 “Deputy Tells of Confessions,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 12, 1959. Original reports stated
that Owens was “bound and gagged,” but she later testified that she was only blindfolded; after
she pulled the blindfold down, she appeared to have been gagged.
27 “Four Whites Seized in Rape of Negro,” New York Times, May 3, 1959, p. A45.
28 On the Tallahassee bus boycott, see Glenda Alice Rabby, The Pain and the Promise: The
Struggle for Civil Rights in Tallahassee, Florida (Athens, Ga., 1999), 9–46. Robert M. White,
“The Tallahassee Sit-ins and CORE: A Nonviolent Revolutionary Sub-movement” (Ph.D. diss.,
Florida State University, 1964), 65.
29 White, “Tallahassee Sit-ins and CORE,” 65.
30 “Rapists Face Trial,” Famuan, 27 (May 1959), 1, 3; “Negroes Ask Justice for Co-ed Rapists,”
Atlanta Constitution, May 4, 1959, p. 2; “Four Whites Seized in Rape of Negro,” New York
Times, May 3, 1959, p. A45; ibid., May 5, 1959, p. A23; “Mass Rape of Co-ed Outrages
Students,” Louisiana Weekly, May 9, 1959, p. 1; L’Osservatore Romano, June 12, 1959; Herald
Tribune–London, June 13, 1959; “Jury to Take Up Rape of Negro Co-ed,” Atlanta Constitution,
May 5, 1959, p. 5.
31 Patricia Stephens Due telephone interview by McGuire, March 4, 1999 (notes in McGuire’s
possession). See also Tananarive Due and Patricia Stephens Due, Freedom in the Family: A
Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (New York, 2003), 40–41. White,
“Tallahassee Sit-ins and CORE,” 65.
32 See Howard Smead, Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker (New York, 1988);
Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 143; “Lynch Victim Mack Parker’s Body Is Found,” Tallahassee
Democrat, May 5, 1959.
33 “4 Indicted in Rape of Negro Co-ed,” New York Herald Tribune, May 7, 1959, p. 5; Moses
Newson, “Leaves Hospital to Give Testimony,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 16, 1959, pp. 1–2.
34 M. C. Williams quoted in “Packed Court Hears Not Guilty,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 16,
1959, pp. 1–2; “Judge Instructs Jury Here,” Tallahassee Democrat, May 6, 1959, p. 1; “Sobbing
Co-ed Bares Ordeal,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 16, 1959, p. 1; “Indictment for Rape,”
criminal case file #3445, Florida v. Scarborough, Beagles, Stoutamire, and Collinsworth; “Four
Plead Not Guilty to Rape,” Tallahassee Democrat, n.d., clipping, folder 4, box 912, W. May
Walker Papers (Special Collections, Robert Manning Strozier Library, Florida State University,
35 Claude Sitton, “Negroes See Gain in Conviction of Four for Rape of Co-ed,” New York
Times, June 15, 1959, p. A1. Statistics are from David R. Colburn and Richard K. Scher,
Florida’s Gubernatorial Politics in the Twentieth Century (Gainesville, 1995), 13. Willis McCall
quoted in Steven F. Lawson, David R. Colburn, and Darryl Paulson, “Groveland: Florida’s Little
Scottsboro,” in The African American Heritage of Florida, ed. David R. Colburn and Jane L.
Landers (Gainesville, 1995), 298–325, esp. 312.
36 See Moses J. Newson, “The Wind Blew, the Sky Was Overcast,” Baltimore Afro-American,
June 20, 1959; Moses J. Newson, “Abraham’s Shadow Hangs Low over Tallahassee,” ibid.; and
Moses J. Newson, “His Mother Can Never Forget Him,”ibid.
37 “Another Dixiecrat Headache,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1959; “The Other Story,” n.d.,
clipping, folder 1, box 912, Walker Papers.
38 William H. Chafe, “Epilogue from Greensboro, North Carolina,” in Democracy Betrayed, ed.
Cecelski and Tyson, 281–82. “Senate to Get Racial Measures,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 14,
1959, p. 1; “Pent Up Critique on the Rape Case,” ibid., May 14, 1959.
39 Pittsburgh Courier, May 30, 1959, p. 3; “Mr. Muhammad Speaks,” Pittsburgh Courier, May
16, 1959.
40 Ella Baker quoted in Pittsburgh Courier, May 30, 1959, p. 3; see also Ransby, Ella Baker and
the Black Freedom Movement, 210. “Enforce the Law,” New York Amsterdam News, May 9,
1959; “What Will Florida Do?,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 16, 1959.
41 “King Asks Ike to Go to Mississippi,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 23, 1959; see also
Martin Luther King Jr. to Clifford C. Taylor, May 5, 1959, in The Papers of Martin Luther King,
ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (vol. 6, Berkeley, forthcoming). Thanks to Kieran Taylor for sending
me this information.
42 “Report from Europe,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 23, 1959; “King Asks Ike to Go to
Mississippi,”ibid. For the impact of the Cold War on civil rights, see, for example, Mary L.
Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, 2000);
and Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the
Global Arena (Cambridge, Mass., 2001). “Appeal to U.N. to Stop Race Violence,” Louisiana
Weekly, May 9, 1959, p. 1.
43 Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 145–51, esp. 148, 149; ibid., 163–65.
44 Roy Wilkins to LeRoy Collins, May 6, 1959, box A91, series III, NAACP Papers.
45 Tallahassee Democrat, May 4, 1959. On the “fair maiden,” see Hall, “‘The Mind That Burns
in Each Body,'” 335.
46 “I Was Scared,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1959; see also “Did Not Consent,” Tallahassee
Democrat, June 11, 1959; “Rape Co-eds Own Story,” New York Amsterdam News, June 20,
1959, p. 1; Atlanta Constitution, June 12, 1959; “Negro Girl Tells Jury of Rape by Four,” New
York Times, June 12, 1959, p. A16. Coverage of Owens’s testimony was nearly identical in
newspapers cited.
47 “Did Not Consent,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 11, 1959; ibid.; ibid.; “I Was Scared,”
Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1959, p. 1; “Did Not Consent,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 11,
1959; ibid.; see also Charlotte Observer, June 12, 1959, p. 1A.
48 “Did Not Consent,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 11, 1959; “I Was Scared,” Pittsburgh
Courier, June 20, 1959; “State’s exhibits” (knife) in criminal case file #3445, Florida v.
Scarborough, Beagles, Stoutamire, and Collinsworth, 1959.
49 “Rape Co-eds Own Story,” New York Amsterdam News, June 20, 1959, p. 1; ” I Was Scared,”
Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1959, p. 1; see also “Four Begin Defense in Trial on Rape,” New
York Times, June 13, 1959, p. A13.
50 Doctors quoted in “Rape Co-eds Own Story,” New York Amsterdam News, June 20, 1959, p.
1; also in “Four Begin Defense in Trial on Rape,” New York Times, June 13, 1959, p. A13;
friends quoted in “Did Not Consent,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 11, 1959; John Rudd and
Richard Brown quoted in “Deputy Tells of Confessions,” ibid., June 12, 1959.
51 Anderson, “Rapists Missed Out on First Selection,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1959, p. 3;
“Four Begin Defense in Trial on Rape,” New York Times, June 13, 1959, p. A13; Howard
Williams quoted in “Rape Defendants Claim Consent,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 13, 1959.
52 “Negro Co-ed Gave Consent, Rape Defendants Tell Jury,” Atlanta Constitution, June 13,
53 William Hopkins quoted in “Four Convicted in Rape Case; Escape Chair; 2 hr 45 min Verdict
Calmly Received in Court,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 14, 1959, p. 1; Pearlie Collinsworth and
friends quoted in “Rape Defendants Claim Consent,” ibid., June 13, 1959; Maudine Reeve’s
history of Ted Collinsworth, “State’s exhibit #15,” criminal case file #3445, Florida v.
Scarborough, Beagles, Stoutamire, and Collinsworth, 1959; letter from Mrs. W. T. Collinsworth,
“State’s exhibit #16,” ibid.
54 W. M. C. Wilhoit’s testimony in “Motion for Leave to File Notice of Defense of Insanity,”
May 28, 1959, criminal case file #3445, Florida v. Scarborough, Beagles, Stoutamire, and
Collinsworth, 1959. “Four Begin Defense in Trial on Rape,” New York Times, June 13, 1959, p.
A13; John Rudd quoted in “Four Guilty of Raping Negro; Florida Jury Votes Mercy,” ibid., June
14, 1959, p. 1; Arthur Everett, “Four Convicted in Florida Rape Case,” Washington Post, June
14, 1959; “Insanity Plea Prepared as Rape Case Defense,” Tallahassee Democrat, May 28, 1959;
“Mental Exam Set for Collinsworth,” ibid., May 29, 1959; “Four Begin Defense in Trial on
Rape,” New York Times, June 13, 1959, p. A13.
55 “Four Guilty of Raping Negro; Florida Jury Votes Mercy,” New York Times, June 14, 1959, p.
A1. Charles U. Smith interview by Jackson Lee Ice, 1978, in Jackson Lee Ice Interviews, Florida
Governors Manuscript Collection (Special Collections, Strozier Library); verified in Charles U.
Smith telephone interview by McGuire, March 9, 1999 (notes in McGuire’s possession).
56 “Precedent Seen in Rape Trial,” Tampa Tribune, June 15, 1959; Tallahassee Democrat, June
14, 1959, p. 1.
57 “Verdict,” June 14, 1959, criminal case file #3445, Florida v. Scarborough, Beagles,
Stoutamire, and Collinsworth, 1959. “Guilty as Charged,” Baltimore Afro-American, June 20,
1959; A. H. King quoted in “No Brutality Proof, Says Florida Jury,” Atlanta Constitution, June
15, 1959, p. 1.
58 Sitton, “Negroes See Gain in Conviction of Four for Rape of Co-ed,” New York Times, June
15, 1959, p. A1; “I’m Leaving Dixie,” New York Amsterdam News, June 20, 1959.
59 Apparently students at Florida A&M ostracized Thomas Butterfield and Richard Brown for
failing to protect Betty Jean Owens and Edna Richardson; students thought they ought to have
shown some “physical resistance” rather than run away from the “point of a knife and gun”: “I’m
Leaving Dixie,” New York Amsterdam News, June 20, 1959. “Hits Negro Men,” ibid., June 6,
1959, p. 8. “Williams Was Right,” Baltimore Afro-American, June 27, 1959; “Four Convicted in
Rape Case,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 14, 1959, p. 7; “I’m Leaving Dixie,” New York
Amsterdam News, June 20, 1959.
60 Sitton, “Negroes See Gain in Conviction of Four for Rape of Co-ed,” New York Times, June
15, 1959, p. A1. “Negroes Say They Will Use Tallahassee Case as Precedent in Rape Trials,”
Tampa Tribune, June 15, 1959. Later that summer, Leon A. Lowery and others helped launch a
successful campaign to highlight the unequal justice meted out for black men accused of raping
white women. See also Trezzvant W. Anderson, “Four Florida Rapists Near Chair,” Pittsburgh
Courier, July 4, 1959.
61 Roy Wilkins to Fredrick Cunningham, June 23, 1959, box A91, series III, NAACP Papers;
“This Is Not Equal Justice,” Louisiana Weekly, July 4, 1959.
62 Fred G. Millette to Judge W. May Walker, June 15, 1959, box 912, folder 1, Walker Papers;
Mrs. Laura Cox to Judge Walker, June 15, 1959, ibid.; Mrs. Bill Aren to Judge Walker, June 15,
1959, ibid.
63 On the “incubus,” see Glenda Gilmore, “Murder, Memory, and the Flight of the Incubus,” in
Democracy Betrayed, ed. Cecelski and Tyson, 73–93. Frederick Douglass quoted in Martha
Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven,
1997), 206.
64 For information on Florida’s “moderate” racial politics, see Tom Wagy, Governor LeRoy
Collins of Florida: Spokesman of the New South (University, Ala., 1985); and Steven F. Lawson,
“From Sit-in to Race Riot: Businessmen, Blacks, and the Pursuit of Moderation in Tampa, 1960–
1967,” in Southern Businessmen and Desegregation, ed. Elizabeth Jacoway and David R.
Colburn (Baton Rouge, 1982), 257–81.
65 Cases cited in Kimberly R. Woodard, “The Summer of African-American Discontent,”
unpublished paper, Duke University, 1992 (in McGuire’s possession). See also “Death to Be
Demanded in Rape Case,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 4, 1959; John H. McCray, “Marine
Doomed to Electric Chair in S.C. Rape Case,” ibid., July 11, 1959, p. 1; Clarence Mitchell,
“Separate but Equal Justice,” ibid.; “Girlfriend Turns in Rape Suspect,” ibid., Aug. 1, 1959;
Trezzvant Anderson, “Negroes Weep as Georgia White Is Acquitted,” Pittsburgh Courier, Sept.
2, 1959.
66 “The Tallahassee Case: A Turning Point in South,” New York Amsterdam News, July 18,
1959; John H. McCray, “South’s Courts Show New Day of Justice,” Baltimore Afro-American,
June 11, 1959.
67 Richard Haley, “Report on Events in Tallahassee, October 1959–June 1960,” folder 7, box 10,
series 5, Congress of Racial Equality Papers (Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison).
©2004 Organization of American Historians
Content in the History Cooperative database is intended for personal, noncommercial use only.
You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of,
modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the History Cooperative
database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Get Professional Assignment Help Cheaply

Buy Custom Essay

Don't use plagiarized sources. Get Your Custom Essay on
The African American Freedom Struggle
Just from $9/Page
Order Essay

Are you busy and do not have time to handle your assignment? Are you scared that your paper will not make the grade? Do you have responsibilities that may hinder you from turning in your assignment on time? Are you tired and can barely handle your assignment? Are your grades inconsistent?

Whichever your reason is, it is valid! You can get professional academic help from our service at affordable rates. We have a team of professional academic writers who can handle all your assignments.

Why Choose Our Academic Writing Service?

  • Plagiarism free papers
  • Timely delivery
  • Any deadline
  • Skilled, Experienced Native English Writers
  • Subject-relevant academic writer
  • Adherence to paper instructions
  • Ability to tackle bulk assignments
  • Reasonable prices
  • 24/7 Customer Support
  • Get superb grades consistently

Online Academic Help With Different Subjects


Students barely have time to read. We got you! Have your literature essay or book review written without having the hassle of reading the book. You can get your literature paper custom-written for you by our literature specialists.


Do you struggle with finance? No need to torture yourself if finance is not your cup of tea. You can order your finance paper from our academic writing service and get 100% original work from competent finance experts.

Computer science

Computer science is a tough subject. Fortunately, our computer science experts are up to the match. No need to stress and have sleepless nights. Our academic writers will tackle all your computer science assignments and deliver them on time. Let us handle all your python, java, ruby, JavaScript, php , C+ assignments!


While psychology may be an interesting subject, you may lack sufficient time to handle your assignments. Don’t despair; by using our academic writing service, you can be assured of perfect grades. Moreover, your grades will be consistent.


Engineering is quite a demanding subject. Students face a lot of pressure and barely have enough time to do what they love to do. Our academic writing service got you covered! Our engineering specialists follow the paper instructions and ensure timely delivery of the paper.


In the nursing course, you may have difficulties with literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, critical essays, and other assignments. Our nursing assignment writers will offer you professional nursing paper help at low prices.


Truth be told, sociology papers can be quite exhausting. Our academic writing service relieves you of fatigue, pressure, and stress. You can relax and have peace of mind as our academic writers handle your sociology assignment.


We take pride in having some of the best business writers in the industry. Our business writers have a lot of experience in the field. They are reliable, and you can be assured of a high-grade paper. They are able to handle business papers of any subject, length, deadline, and difficulty!


We boast of having some of the most experienced statistics experts in the industry. Our statistics experts have diverse skills, expertise, and knowledge to handle any kind of assignment. They have access to all kinds of software to get your assignment done.


Writing a law essay may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, especially when you need to know the peculiarities of the legislative framework. Take advantage of our top-notch law specialists and get superb grades and 100% satisfaction.

What discipline/subjects do you deal in?

We have highlighted some of the most popular subjects we handle above. Those are just a tip of the iceberg. We deal in all academic disciplines since our writers are as diverse. They have been drawn from across all disciplines, and orders are assigned to those writers believed to be the best in the field. In a nutshell, there is no task we cannot handle; all you need to do is place your order with us. As long as your instructions are clear, just trust we shall deliver irrespective of the discipline.

Are your writers competent enough to handle my paper?

Our essay writers are graduates with bachelor's, masters, Ph.D., and doctorate degrees in various subjects. The minimum requirement to be an essay writer with our essay writing service is to have a college degree. All our academic writers have a minimum of two years of academic writing. We have a stringent recruitment process to ensure that we get only the most competent essay writers in the industry. We also ensure that the writers are handsomely compensated for their value. The majority of our writers are native English speakers. As such, the fluency of language and grammar is impeccable.

What if I don’t like the paper?

There is a very low likelihood that you won’t like the paper.

Reasons being:

  • When assigning your order, we match the paper’s discipline with the writer’s field/specialization. Since all our writers are graduates, we match the paper’s subject with the field the writer studied. For instance, if it’s a nursing paper, only a nursing graduate and writer will handle it. Furthermore, all our writers have academic writing experience and top-notch research skills.
  • We have a quality assurance that reviews the paper before it gets to you. As such, we ensure that you get a paper that meets the required standard and will most definitely make the grade.

In the event that you don’t like your paper:

  • The writer will revise the paper up to your pleasing. You have unlimited revisions. You simply need to highlight what specifically you don’t like about the paper, and the writer will make the amendments. The paper will be revised until you are satisfied. Revisions are free of charge
  • We will have a different writer write the paper from scratch.
  • Last resort, if the above does not work, we will refund your money.

Will the professor find out I didn’t write the paper myself?

Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.

What if the paper is plagiarized?

We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.

When will I get my paper?

You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.

Will anyone find out that I used your services?

We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.

How our Assignment Help Service Works

1. Place an order

You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.

2. Pay for the order

Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.

3. Track the progress

You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.

4. Download the paper

The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.

smile and order essay GET A PERFECT SCORE!!! smile and order essay Buy Custom Essay

Place your order
(550 words)

Approximate price: $22

Calculate the price of your order

550 words
We'll send you the first draft for approval by September 11, 2018 at 10:52 AM
Total price:
The price is based on these factors:
Academic level
Number of pages
Basic features
  • Free title page and bibliography
  • Unlimited revisions
  • Plagiarism-free guarantee
  • Money-back guarantee
  • 24/7 support
On-demand options
  • Writer’s samples
  • Part-by-part delivery
  • Overnight delivery
  • Copies of used sources
  • Expert Proofreading
Paper format
  • 275 words per page
  • 12 pt Arial/Times New Roman
  • Double line spacing
  • Any citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard)

Our guarantees

Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.

Money-back guarantee

You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.

Read more

Zero-plagiarism guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

Read more

Free-revision policy

Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.

Read more

Privacy policy

Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

Read more

Fair-cooperation guarantee

By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.

Read more
error: Content is protected !!
Open chat
Need assignment help? You can contact our live agent via WhatsApp using +1 718 717 2861

Feel free to ask questions, clarifications, or discounts available when placing an order.
  +1 718 717 2861           + 44 161 818 7126           [email protected]
  +1 718 717 2861         [email protected]