(WOMENSENEWS)–Outside the Raleigh, N.C., courthouse, a huge crowd of supporters sang, chanted and paraded, a national groundswell of support for a 20-year-old black woman who, until then, had been just another prisoner, another victim and another statistic.
Petite Joan Little was a convicted thief, the only female inmate in the Beaufort County jail. Clarence Alligood, who held the keys to her cell, was a burly 61-year-old white man. Sometime during the night of August 27, 1974, Alligood was found dead and Little was gone. When she turned herself in days later, Little said the jailer had raped her and she had killed HIM in self-defense.
Two Activist Strands
The crowd outside the courthouse when the trial began in July 1975 represented at least two activist strands. One was militant anti-racism, most visible in the rise of the Black Panthers, but also thriving among civil rights lawyers who had turned from the streets to the courts to combat institutional racism.
The other strand was the part of the women’s movement that focused on exposing sexual violence by opening rape crisis centers, organizing “Take Back The Night” marches and analyzing rape as a political act. Bridging the two strands, with a new perspective on both racism and sexism, was a cadre of black feminists in whose hands the century-old legacy of cultural permission for the rape of black women was exposed to public view.
Civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote the first song for Sweet Honey In The Rock, her a capella singing group, about Joan Little. Angela Davis organized a defense committee.
As supporters paraded outside the courtroom, Little faced first-degree murder charges and an automatic death penalty. Jurors heard about Alligood’s semen-stained trousers around his ankles and the 11 ice pick wounds in the jailer’s body. They heard Little recount the rape, experts explain rape psychology and witnesses testify to Alligood’s sexual harassment of other women, as well as his habitual use of the ice pick to intimidate.
In the end, which came on August 22, 1975–and against all historical odds–the jury agreed that Joan Little had acted in self-defense and found her not guilty of murder.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org