The Memphis Riots of 1866 are of deep historical significance as they mark the first documented case in the United States on an organized effort to combat rape.
After this riot a group of African American Women testified before Congress. These women stood up and stated that a white mob, composed of civilians as well as policemen, had perpetrated a series of gang rapes throughout the riots. There were three documented rapes that occurred during these three days as well as the murder of 46 African Americans. Lucy Smith was sixteen years old when she testified that seven white men, including two police officers, broke into her home and raped her and her friend Frances Thompson. These two women alongside their peers testified before the United States Congress. Their perpetrators escaped any sort of punishment. This injustice and other similar injustices sparked outrage from African American activists including Ida Wells, Anna Julia Cooper and Fannie Barrier Williams. The efforts of these courageous women laid the groundwork for future projects against sexual and gender based violence in the United States.
The next great push against sexual and gender-based violence took place during the Civil Rights Movement. Rose Parks, often inaccurately portrayed as a quiet woman who was too tired to move seats, was actually a well-known anti-rape activist for almost a decade before her refusal to sit at the back of a bus. She founded the Committee for Equal Justice in 1944 that focused on combating sexual violence against women. Recy Taylor’s case became one of the group’s main focuses. At the age of twenty-four this mother was raped by seven armed white men on her way home from church. Another girl, Flossie Hardman, was raped at the age of fifteen by her boss, a grocery store owner. He was found “not guilty” after just five minutes of jury deliberation. In response, African American consumers organized a boycott of the grocery store, ultimately driving the store out of business.
The 1970s marked the intertwining of both women of color and white feminism in order to combat rape and other forms of sexual violence. This coalition raised public awareness on these issues facing all women. Gilian Greensite of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault stated that, “The plight of Inez Garcia in 1974, Joanne Little in 1975, Yvonne Wanrow in 1976 and Dessie Woods in 1976, all victims of rape or assault who fought back, killed their assailants and were imprisoned, brought the issue of rape into political organizations that had not historically focused on rape.” In 1972 the first rape crisis center opened and the Feminist Alliance against Rape (FAAR) was founded in 1974. Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will acknowledging the systematic role rape has in maintaining the social order was published in 1975. It should however be noted that African American activists had already come to Brownmiller’s conclusion nearly a century earlier.
All this work sparked numerous protests, speeches and speak-outs. Eventually, laws began to change. Marital rape became illegal, new definitions of sexual violence were accepted and the historic Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed in 1994. VAWA was later expanded in 2000, 2005 and again in 2013 also in order to also protect Native America, gay, lesbian, and transgender survivors. The Clery Act was also passed in Congress in 1990 which requires all colleges and universities that receive federal funding to report rape and other crimes in both a daily crime log as well as in a public annual report. The Clery Act, coupled with the adoption of Title IX, have set the foundation to make college campuses better equipped to combat rape.
In 2015, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer accused of raping women while on duty, was found guilty. He was convicted on 18 of the 36 counts of sexual assault in attacks on 13 women. The victims, all of whom are black, were given some semblance of justice when this officer was sentenced on January 21st, 2016 to 263 years in prison. Sadly, this sentencing does not absolve our nation of its tragic history with sexual assault. Though the women who were sexually assaulted during the Memphis Riots will never see justice, as our country moves forward it stands clear that efforts to end sexual and gender-based violence against women have and will be always be led by African American women.