Refusing to be Silenced

By Quishuana Clark

Historically, black girls could not count on the protection of institutions designed to protect the public, such as the justice system. Julian Bond’s “Self Defense Against Rape: The Joanne Little Case” describes a court case in March of 1975 in North Carolina, of a 20 year old young woman named Joanne Little. Little was a prisoner of Beaufort County jail when a male prison guard by the name of Clarence Alligood tried to rape her.1 She defended herself against Alligood, and as a result, he died in the cell. Joanne ran for fear of her life, later turning herself in, and at the time this article was written, she was awaiting trial. This is just one story of the injustices that have been done to black girls and young women, which is why Bond fought to have Little’s story heard and her case treated with fairness. Furthermore, Little’s story shows a form of resistance against the sexual assault of black girls. Not only did Little physically resist Alligood’s advances, she also resisted the unfair justice system and social norms set in place by going to trial, telling her story, and fighting for black girls’ rights to their bodies and rights to equality. As a result, Little’s case marked a shift to open resistance of these injustices.

Julian Bond sheds light on the fact that the police and prosecutors tried to protect themselves, and their white colleagues, while the press assisted in their efforts. According to Bond, the prosecutors ignored the fact that Alligood’s pants were down, proving sexual contact, and scattered the evidence to different precincts.2 The justice system and the press actively paints Little as a murderer, all while trying their best to prevent her lawyers from proving otherwise. Calling Alligood a hero that died in the line of duty also gives the public a false narrative. He died because he attacked an imprisoned girl in her cell, but denying people that knowledge allows the press and prosecutors to create a stereotypical story, in which the black girl is the deviant. The unwillingness of the prosecutors to believe Little’s stories sheds light on the little respect and curtesy that black girls were given, and how the jail systems wanted to protect their own interests and not the women that were jailed.

Bond uses Little’s case to highlight the fear black girls had of the justice system and how that lead to silence. The word of a scared black girl carried little weight in the eyes of the law, and for that reason black girls were not able to trust law enforcement. Bond states that Joanne was afraid that the police would kill her, which is the reason she ran.3 His focus on Little’s instinct to run, instead of initially telling the guards what happened, shows the little trust that black girls had for the law. And even after other women disclosed that they had been assaulted by Alligood, Joanne was still charged with first degree murder. The unwillingness for officials to believe the stories of black girls and women lead to them silencing themselves, which is what Joanne did by running. Black girls and young women, in white run prisons, were constantly in danger of and often belittled by the very people that were supposed to shield them from harm, and as a result, it was very evident that the shield was just another thing reserved for whites only.

The sexual humiliation and assault of black girls and women has been a widespread practice, which is shown in other works as well. In “The Body, Sexuality, and Self- defense in State vs Joan Little”, Genna Rae McNeil states that many black girls and women are thought to “get what the deserve” because of their reputations.4 Often times the sexuality of black girls was used as a vice against their character, even when they are victims of assault. The widespread humiliation of black girls is also prevalent in Danielle McGuire’s book At the Dark End of The Street. McGuire details the assault of a young black woman, stating, “the women endured ‘rough, painful vaginal searches,’ by prison guards who used gloves dipped in Lysol”.5 Sexual assault was used as a tactic to destroy the pride and dignity of black women throughout the South. Often, women were wrongfully imprisoned and sexually assaulted without any hope of justice for the perpetrator’s (police officers’) crimes.

Bond uses Joanne Little’s case to mark a shift in the way black girls claimed their rights, and their bodies as their own. Joanne chose to turn herself into the police and fight the charges that were against her, knowing the possible consequences of her actions. This form of resistance against the status quo of sexual assault created a platform where black girls and women could take a stand. Bond pushed this platform forward by shining light on the intentional injustices of the jail system and the unwillingness of press to report unbiased news when dealing with interracial sexual violence. Black girls began to feel as though they had the power and the support to go public with their stories, owning their bodies, and publically stating that these attacks were happening and that they were wrong. This shift from compliance to resistance is very important in the history of black girlhood because it gave black girls a voice in situations where they once would just hope to soon forget about the incident. Joanne Little’s case aided in a revolution set on destroying shields that sex offenders hid behind.

Even with this shift to resistance of assault and degradation of black girls, sexual assault remains a problem today. “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” examines the increased amount of African American girls in the juvenile justice system and how these girls are often victims of sexual assault or sexually assaulted while imprisoned. They state, “…worse, the system’s routine processes can serve to re-traumatize girls; and, worse still, some report that they experience new incidents of abuse while inside”.6 Unfortunately, black women and girls are still targets of sexual abuse within the prison system because they are viewed as vulnerable and disposable. Prisons are unproportionately filled with black prisoners, many of whom are women who are revictimized by those who are supposed to keep them safe. Modern books, such as Surviving the Silence, show that black girls and women are still pushed to absorb their pain and deal with the assault in private. One woman says, “Telling my story in a courtroom was like giving the world license to judge, analyze, speculate, point fingers”.7 There is still much stigma associated with sexual assault and girls feel violated and judged, when they should feel supported. Black girls and women detail their assaults and many disclose their feeling of shame. The rights of black girls still have to be fought for, which proves that we still have a problem.

Julian Bond used the Joanne Little case to illuminate the injustices that were taking place within law enforcement, and showed the public the ways in which black girls were degraded by those trained to protect. However, Little, aided in a shift to resisting the assaults and unjust treatment of women, allowing other black girls to take a stand. The history surrounding the rape of black girls and women is dark and plagued with injustice, however, this case proved that black women could and should seek justice for themselves, and that sexual assault of any person, regardless of color, should be punished.

  1. Julian Bond, “Self Defense Against Rape: The Joanne Little Case”, in The Black Scholar 6.6 (Taylor and Francis, 1975)
  2. Ibid., 30
  3. Ibid., 29
  4. Genna Rae McNeil. “The Body, Sexuality, and Self- defense in State vs Joan Little1974-1975.” Journal Of African American History 93, no. 2 (Spring 2008 ). Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost, 241-242.
  5. Danielle L. McGuire. At the Dark End of the Street : Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 160.
  6. Saar, Malika, Rebecca Epstein, Yasmin Vafa, and Lindsay Rosenthal. “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” (Washington D.C: Center for Poverty and Equality, 2015), 12.
  7. Charlotte Pierce- Baker Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 52.