She is somebody

Joan Little is a Black woman charged with the 1974 murder of Clarence Alligood, a white prison guard in Beaufort County Jail in Washington, N.C., who attempted to rape her. [Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture]

BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief

Sadly, women have been the victims of sexual assault since before biblical times. On plantations, black women were routinely victimized in this way. Today, we hear that “sex sells.”

Question. Are you buying it?

From music videos to car advertisements, we have seen women objectified to enrich someone else’s bottom line. What message is society telling our girls and our boys about our girls? Are you truly appreciating and valuing her intellectual capacity, even when it is present in black and brown skin? What happens when she fights back?

Meet Joan Little, the first woman in United States history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault. Little was born in 1953. She was the oldest of 10 siblings and was forced to care for them. The pressure was too much. She often rebelled and was a regular runaway.

In 1968, and pursuant to her mother’s request, Little was declared a truant and ordered to the Dobbs Farm Training School. By the time she was 20, she had acquired a series of arrests. Still, her intelligence had been noted by her social worker, who offered her encouraging words. What if her intellect was celebrated? How different would her life have been?

While Little was in a jail in North Carolina, she was sexually assaulted by a jail guard. She was 21. He was 62.

The guard’s body was found lying face down on her bunk, naked from the waist down. He had been stabbed in the temple and heart areas with the same ice pick he used to force her to comply. It was obvious that sexual activity had taken place. Unfortunately, the jail guard did not see Little as anything more than a sexualized object.

Little was charged with first-degree murder. The charge in North Carolina carried an automatic death sentence.

Because, at that time, North Carolina was home to over one-third of all the death penalty cases in the United States, anti-death penalty and prisoners’ rights advocates were extremely interested in Little’s case. Since the jail guard was a white man and Little was a black woman, both civil rights activists and feminists were also extremely interested.

Keisha Bell

Keisha Bell

Little acknowledged that she killed the jail guard but stated that she did so in self-defense of the sexual assault. The widespread interest in Little’s case captured the national media, and the Joan Little Defense Committee raised over $350,000. People believed that she is somebody.

Question. Do you believe it?

Keisha Bell is an Attorney, author, and public servant.

One Reply to “She is somebody”

  1. Bible Guy says:

    Joan actually said that she killed Clarence Alligood by mistake and that she was just trying to get away because he held her by both wrists about to penetrate(brutally rape) her, but she had his ice pick in her hand and she literally overpowered him and stabbed him eleven times and accidentally stabbed him in the heart and he fell down on the bed and after she escaped he bled to death and died with the icepick stuck in his heart! Because he tried to rape her she had every right to take his life on purpose! I pray that she understands that fact now!

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