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Black women & self-defense

A look back at the Joann Little case

Published Mar 9, 2006 8:20 PM

The most basic demand of women’s liberation is the right of every woman to decide the destiny of her own life and body. This includes the right to defend herself against rape and the right to decide whether or not she will bear children.

Joann Little, right, at protest in
Richmond, Va., in June 1975.
WW photo

Today in the U.S. there is an all-out attack on these rights led by a political right-wing in the service of ruling class interests. A South Dakota bill signed into law on March 6 that outlaws abortion in the state, even for victims of rape and incest, is the latest blow.

But one little-known struggle waged in the U.S. South gives us an historic lesson in how a fightback for women can be waged under the most difficult circumstances—and how a communist party can play a key role in advancing women’s liberation in the context of national liberation and working-class struggle.

Boston, March 1978.
WW photo

Double oppression

In August 1975, Joann Little, a 20-year-old African American woman, fled her jail cell in Beaufort, N.C., after killing the white deputy sheriff who had attempted to rape her. Little used the jailer’s ice-pick weapon against him in her desperate struggle to resist. When Little surrendered to auth orities, citing self-defense, she was arrested and put on trial for murder.

The historic campaign that saved Little from execution or life in prison was the first successful U.S. struggle to assert the right of African-American women to self-defense against white rapists.

Wade County courthouse, Raleigh, N.C.,
July 1975.
WW photo: G. Dunkel

Only once before in the U.S. had a national struggle been waged for this right in the case of a specific woman. It started in 1944 in Alabama, after Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American woman, was abducted by six white men, gang-raped and grievously injured. Local Com munist Party organizers in Birming ham launched a campaign to bring the assai lants to trial. Committees in her support were set up in 43 states, with eminent mem bers such as African American historian W.E.B. Du Bois, educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown and poet Countee Cullen, as well as white Southern anti-racist writer Lillian Smith. (Earl Conrad and Eugene Gordon, “Equal Justice under the Law,” 1946)

The struggle to prosecute Taylor’s rapists was ultimately unsuccessful. But it was courageously waged in a still-segregated South, where the police, the elected officials, and representatives of the judicial system were all white and all part of an edifice of state power first erected during slavery for the super-exploitation and oppression of African-American people by a white slave-owning class.

This was the system still in place in rural North Carolina on the night Joann Little defended herself. Though legal segregation in the South had been challenged and defeated through mass struggle, white supremacy remained the order of state rule in much of the region.

Therefore, African American women still experienced crushing double oppression in full force. Slave owners had not just held African-American women as property and exploited their labor as workers. The owners had used the women’s ability to reproduce as a source of profit, forcing them to bear children and then selling their children into slavery.

As a Workers World editorial on Joann Little’s struggle stated: “Southern slave holders considered rape one of the rights of ownership, and that attitude prevails in the minds of white racists today. All Joann Little did was to protect her body and her life. She is not a criminal. The crime is that she is being tried at all.” (WW, June 11, 1975)

The national and international context in 1975 was very dif ferent from that during the 1940s struggle for Recy Taylor. The Vietnam ese people, led by communists, were on the verge of victory against the U.S. imperialist war. Both women’s liberation and lesbian and gay liberation were in full bloom as movements, with 1975 designated as the first International Women’s Year by the UN.

In an era of high unemployment, 60,000 marched in Washington for “Jobs for All.” Native nations, including the Meno minee in Wisconsin and the Seneca in Buffalo, were waging an intense struggle for land rights. Prisoners throughout the U.S. were organizing against repression, including the Atmore-Holman Bro thers in Alabama. One rebellion took place in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women shortly after Little was released on bail. Women there battled club-wielding guards who attacked them as they protested the “atrocious conditions” in the prison sweatshop laundries. (Workers World, June 27, 1985)

‘My life is in the hands of the people’

The Prisoner Solidarity Committee (PSC), a mass unit of Workers World Party, played a key role in winning Joann Little’s freedom. It was led by the Norfolk, Va., branch of WWP, which helped to esta blish the Joann Little Defense Committee.

The PSC organized rallies, marches, vigils, leafleting and petitioning in Little’s defense nationwide in cities including Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleve land, Detroit, Durham, N.C., Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Rochester, N.Y., and New York City. A huge community forum in Wash ing ton, D.C., connected the struggle of Little and the Wilmington (N.C.) Ten, nine Black men and one white woman who had been arrested for self-defense against attacks by armed Ku Klux Klan members and local police. (Workers World, June 6, 1975)

In Philadelphia, WWP’s youth arm, Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF), collected 2,000 signatures on a petition demanding an immediate end to Little’s prosecution and supporting “the right of women and prisoners to defend themselves against sexual attacks and physical abuse.”

At a Richmond, Va., march, the Gay Cau cus of YAWF carried a banner: “Gay people demand: Free Joann Little! Free all political prisoners!” Joan Butler, a founding member of Richmond YAWF, said, “Speak ing as a white woman, I know that the rape laws are not for my protection. They are an instrument of the ruling class designed to intimidate and terrorize the Black community.” (Workers World, July 11, 1975)

The Winston-Salem, N.C., branch of the Black Panther Party was staunch in its defense of Little and in connecting the issue of self-defense to international strug gles. Political Affairs Director Larry Little said: “It’s Richard Nixon who should be in jail for the murder of the Vietnamese people.”

A moving statement of support came from Prisoners Against Rape, a group with a membership of prisoners and ex-prisoners convicted of rape, and women active in feminist groups. They said: “[We know] that rape serves to perpetuate male dominance, female submission and stereotype myths, which force women to comply with existing social, political, and sexist institutions.... Unite to give power to oppres sed people! Down with sexism! Free sister Jo ann Little!” (Workers World, Jan. 10, 1975)

After the Center for Constitutional Rights documented “overwhelming racial prejudice and presumption of guilt in a 23-county area in Eastern North Carolina,” Little’s trial was moved to Raleigh, the capital. One of the prosecutors for the state had previously defended the Ku Klux Klan.

But Little herself said, “My life is not in the hands of the court. My life is in the hands of the people.” Over a thousand people demonstrated during the trial outside the courthouse. And on Aug. 22, 1975, the people prevailed as a jury declared Joann Little “Not guilty!” Little’s defense lawyer, Karen Galloway, said, “Because of the issues in this case of racism and sexism, we knew we had to take Joann’s case to the people and the people freed her....” (Workers World, Aug. 22, 1975)

Monica Moorehead, a leader of Nor folk’s Prisoners Solidarity Committee in 1975 and now a member of WWP’s Secre tariat, says that the struggle to free Joann Little has relevance for women’s liberation today: “One of the most important lessons of the Joann Little case that is applicable now is that extending working class solidarity to the most oppressed is not an act of charity but holds the key to building an effective fightback movement to liberate our entire class from all forms of bigotry and exploitation by the bosses. Every leaf let, every slogan and every demonstration not only demanded that the murder charges be dropped against our heroic sister Joann, but also that the walls of the prisons be torn down. Because, just as they were then, prisons still remain concentration camps for the poor and oppressed. It is important to politically generalize every individual crime against humanity under capitalism, whether it’s Joann Little or the struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners.”