Their Bodies Were Not Their Own


black female gang raped-1959

On Saturday May 12, 1959 Betty Jean Owen’s life changed forever. Her life changed because four white me decided that they were going to “go out and get a nigger girl”(McGuire). The four men armed themselves and found a car with four African American people in it to hold up gun point. The men weren’t lookingfor an business with the men so they let the two guys drive off without being harmed. In this commotion Edna Richardson broke free and ran to a park leaving behind the four white men and Betty. Betty sobbed and was in much distress which made the men hit her, eventually get her into the car, and to the edge of town. Once they got her there they raped her seven times.

This was a hard time in history for a case like this. Analyses of rape play no role in most histories of the civil rights movement. Women bodies served as signposts of the social order, and white men used rape and rumors of rape to justify violence against African American men and to remind African American women that their bodies were not their own. When Betty spoke out about what happened and talked to the African American community they joined each other to protest. Rape and sexual activities with African American women had its roots in slavery. Taking advantage of these African American women gave to slave owners power, dominance, and gave them economic power. Finally, the slaves got there freedom during the interracial experiment in democracy, but that didn’t stop the white people. During all this violence rape became a weapon of terror to dominate  African American men and women with physically and mentally.

Frances Thompson spoke out when seven armed white men broke into her house. They drew their guns and they sated that they would shoot if they did not give them what they wanted. Four of the men raped Frances, while the other three choke and raped sixteen year old Lucy Smith who nearly died as a result. Years after the Harriet Simril testified against the Ku Klux Klan because she was beaten and ravished by eight men. Rape was getting so bad at this time that Essic Harris appeared in front of congressional committee and said that “the rape of black women was so frequent that it had become an old saying by now”(McGuire). This problem got to the intensity that you couldn’t even trust the police who should always have your back and be the ones protecting you. Fredie Walker remembered being scared by the officers who often exposed themselves to her even though she was only eleven years old.

With all these cases of rape you would think that there was many court cases, but this was not always the case. So many of these rape cases were swept under the rug and the women never got justice for all the injustices against them. Finally, the verdict was out and Betty’s four rapists were sentenced tolife in prison. This may sound like the harshest punishment, but they lucked out and were not sentenced to life in prison. At first glimpse many people were very upset that the men were not given the electric chair. Even without the chair this was a huge win for American American women. This was such a big step in the civil rights moment for not only African Americans , but also for women.

Works Cited

McGuire, Danielle L. “Sexual Violence and the Long Civil Rights Movement.” ‘It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped:’ Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle. The Organization of American Historians.

8 thoughts on “Their Bodies Were Not Their Own

  1. I really enjoyed your take on the reading, Shelby! Explaining how rape and sexual abuse towards African American women have roots in slavery really makes you think about how an issue persists throughout time. Believing that rape is all about sexual pleasure is a shallow argument, because the fact of the matter is that rape exemplifies the need for dominance over the victims bodies, minds and even economics, as you mentioned. To know that these were tactics used to silence black people in America not too long ago is a very daunting thought.

    1. I completely agree with you no doubt about it. Rape everyone feels is just about sex that is not the case in my opinion the rapist usually does it for control and power cause he knows he can. That is so sad that that’s the way they feel they have to do I feel terrible for the victims and no one should ever have to go through that!

  2. While I was reading this story in the book I was so excited when they got life in prison, in my mind it was a huge victory to even get a guilty verdict against white men. And in the context of the time period it really was a major step forward. But it also feels like such an injustice and is hard to believe that power moves used during slavery still had that much standing with white people that they would protect rapists just because it was against black women.

    1. I agree it is disgusting these men were defended in any way. There is no excuse for actions such as this and the fact the males were laughing and joking about the incident after being arrested just shows how insensitive and ignorant they were and they shouldn’t have been granted any mercy.

    2. I agree, that while death would have been appropriate, any kind of prion sentence was a huge victory for these women. No white man had ever been punished period for this crime, so life in jail is certainly a win. It just sad think how many other women never got any justice.

  3. I like that you mentioned that sexual abuse toward African American women is rooted in slavery, when there was slavery it was believed that it was impossible for a white man to rape a black woman. Since racism is so engrained in our society, black women had even less bodily autonomy than white women at the time. It is sad to think that so many cases were swept under the rug and so many people did not get the justice they so deserved.

    1. Danielle, what is sad about this time is women weren’t respected on the level of men; however, African American woman were even below that. So they were seen actually as the weak and vulnerable. A lot of people today believe because of how African American women were treated, has shaped them in modern times. For example, it is believed that African American women are continuing proving to men their independence and is why alot of them are head of household.

  4. It is so sad for anyone to be seen as property to another human being. Betty was innocent and never deserved to be treated like a piece of meat. Yet, this philosophy that a woman’s body isn’t theirs is still believed by people of today. I even saw in a movie a man who was proceeding a divorce with his wife, say “you are still in tilted to please me sexuality because of your martial title.”

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