Mistreated and Molested: Jailhouse Violence and the Civil Rights Movement

Althea Legal-Miller (Independent Scholar)
7 January 2013



Legal-Miller presents the jailhouse as an underrated battleground for civil liberties in the US, a place where dangers such as white male supremacy, police violence, and sexual violence intersected. In particular, she concentrates on the dangers faced by black women and girls who were arrested for their activism. These campaigners underwent invasive examinations, beatings, rape, and forced stripping. Legal-Miller elaborates, using examples, testimonies, and statements by leaders of the movement, on the physical abuse and sexual violence suffered by these activist at the hands of white male prison officers.

Legal-Miller then goes on to explain the efforts that began, after the profile of such cases was raised by women such as Dr Dorothy Irene Height, to put ending prison abuse at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and the impact this had on later activism. Women intelligently undermined the assertion that invasive examinations were ‘medical and voluntary’ by publicising that the prisoners were not told of their right to refuse, and were examined by male staff instead of same-sex doctors. Campaigners also subverted the disciplinary power of shame that would overcome people after they had been arrested, by asserting that the women who ‘sacrificed their dignity and well-being in the jails’ were the height of integrity and respectability, not the bottom.

The particular dangers that black females experienced while protesting is an aspect which was overlooked at the time, and is still overlooked in the history of the Civil Rights movement today. Legal-Miller ties these experiences in with those of white women activists and black male activists, but her emphasis is on black women and girls, who faced the dangers of both their race and gender. She examines how the jail was a setting for the attempted undermining of politics through the undermining of the physical body, and the subsequent backlash which affected the movement as a whole.

Geographical area: