As thousands of Americans have taken to the streets in 2020, reeling from the pain of Black death broadcast over and over, commentators repeatedly refer to the protests as unprecedented. Yet there is little happening that lacks precedent. Foregrounding a history of Black women’s struggles—their trauma, their testimony, and their political vision—gives us perspective on the present.
Some Americans, particularly those unschooled in the rich history of the black freedom struggle, expect black saintliness and martyrdom when it comes to civil rights protest. And indeed, some of the most morally mobilizing images to come out of the protests of the 1960s involve civil rights activists weathering the blows and punches of state authorities run amok. Yet many African Americans felt it should not require black folks walking undefended into the maelstrom to stir white Americans’ conscience; martyrdom should not be the price for justice. Focusing on the experience of Mississippian Henrietta Wright, this talk examines how African Americans – and black women, especially – drew on their encoutners with violence and violation to articulate their vision for resisting and rolling back white supremacy.