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Q&A: Danielle L. McGuire on Civil Rights and Detroit

For most Detroiters, the name “Rosa Parks” generates a wealth of images, mostly that of an older, graying matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement. But do you know anything about a young, vibrant Rosa Parks? What do you know about this radical, vigilant woman with a passionate devotion to female equality?

Today, with the release of Danielle L. McGuire's new book, “At the Dark End of the Street,” people can learn about a new side of Rosa Parks. They also can discover other previously unknown female freedom fighters. McGuire, an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, retells the story of the Civil Rights Movement with a focus on its violent past and champions the role of women in that struggle. (More on See a TIME special on the top 10 female leaders)

I'm about half way through the book, and I'm in love with the people McGuire found and gave voice to within her story. I spoke with her recently about what inspired the book, how she developed her sources and what it is like to be a White woman in Detroit teaching African-American studies.

Q: How did you find this story?

A: It was a coincidence. I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and I was helping one of my professors clean out his office and file things away. We were listening to NPR and they were doing a series on Civil Rights. The host was interviewing the White editor of Montgomery Advertiser, and he said that a woman named Gertrude Perkins was one of the most important people in terms of the Montgomery bus boycott. My professor was a Civil Rights scholar; both he and I were stumped as to who she was. We thought this guy was crazy. I went to the archives over the next week or so, ordered the Montgomery Advertiser and found the story of Gertrude Perkins. Turns out she was walking home from a party and was stopped by two Montgomery police officers. They took her to the railroad tracks and raped her. She went to her pastor and told him what happened. Her pastor sent the story to a (syndicated radio show host), who talked about it on air. Perkins went to the police station and reported it the next day. This was an incredible act for a Black woman and for the 1940s. This was years before the bus boycott, and it was the first time some of these ministers got together and stopped arguing. They came together to demand a trial for her. There was coverage in the White newspapers for months. … When I started reading Black newspapers, I began seeing rape cases happening regularly. Black women were assaulted by bus drivers, store owners, police officers. One of the major boycotts came after a teen-ager was raped by grocery store owner. They community boycotted the store and took it out of business. … These women had no other way to support themselves other than taking a bus; it was their own form of transportation if they were domestics who made only $500 a year. They had a right to walk through the world without being molested. They had been talking about it for a decade before the (Montgomery Bus Boycott) happened. That's when I started to see it as a women's movement instead of just spontaneous combustion. Being abused on the bus was the bane of their existence, so it makes sense to target the buses. (More on Read a story on Rosa Parks)

Q: How did you develop your research?

A: Back in 1998, I was asking, “Who is Gertrude Perkins?” By 2004, I knew exactly who she was and why (the man on NPR) said described her as so important. Each article, each little bit of documentation I found was a puzzle piece. It took a really long time to put it together. The evidence had to reveal itself to me. It was fascinating following these stories. … These are stories that were common knowledge in Black culture for decades. A lot of times, we only talk about equal access or the right to vote. Not a lot of people had looked at this (violence against Black women). This touches people's lives on a deep level.

Q: Does one moment stand out the most?

A: I interviewed Recy Taylor in 2008 after her family found me. I got a call from her youngest brother, who Googled his sister's name and saw I was writing about her. Her family has followed the case for years, tracking her assailants for years. They called me and asked if I wanted the real story. At that point, I hadn't been able to find her because she had remarried. I met with them on the day of President Obama's inauguration. I was nervous to talk to them, and I kept doing a lot of warm up questions. She finally looked at the camera and said, “This is what happened.” Here I am, intimidated, and this woman is not. She told the story very matter of factly. It was the first time many young people in her family had heard the story, and they felt very angry. The family wanted some measure of fairness from the past. Everywhere I went – everyone tells the same stories. (More on See "A Woman's Right to Vote")

Q: What kind of feedback are you getting from people – Black and White?

A: The African Americans I spoke to for the book who survived sexual abuse wanted somebody – they didn't care who – to pay attention. They didn't care who looked into it; they were just so happy someone did it. … I was on the Mildred Gaddis radio show recently, and she and her audience couldn't have been better. People were calling in, asking questions, sending me emails afterward. … I am a White woman teaching Black history and writing about Black history. I'd say 90 percent don't mind. There are a handful who believe it should only be written and taught by their people. I emphasize with that position to some degree. But I think we can't limit who writers about history as long as they do it with evidence and truthfully. I was in the Afro-American studies program at Wisconsin, and it was one of the first in the nation. Even at Wayne State, I've had classes that have a majority of Black students, and it has been a joy. People are really incredible. I see the looks, but after a couple classes, they're cool. I think they respect that I know the history and I've taken time to learn it. And I'm not so-called color blind. … Working in Detroit has really been an incredible experience. I've never had experiences like this that were so joyful and so challenging. It is so full of diamonds in the rough, ready to sparkle and waiting to be seen. (More on See pictures of Detroit's beautiful, horrible decline)

Brett Mountain Photography LLC


To order McGuire's book, click here. To check out her Web site, click here.

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