Disrupters & Interlopers: Joan Little

Considering the plethora of sexual assault allegations being made against high-profile men and being documented through the #metoo hashtag, the story of Joan Little seems worthy of attention. In August 1974, Little was a twenty-year-old African-American woman held in a small-town North Carolina jail when she killed a white jailer who came to her cell during the night to sexually assault her. The man she killed was found by another guard; he had been stabbed to death and had no pants on.

After this incident, Joan Little achieved a dubious kind of fame, which came in part from her acquittal on the murder charges related to the guard’s death. It was unusual in the South for an African American even to survive the charge of killing a white person, much less to be acquitted in a trial, but the circumstances surrounding her confinement and the killing were hard to ignore. According to a New York Times story from April 1975, she was the only female inmate in the jail, the guard had been doing small favors for her, and the video camera surveillance of her was round-the-clock:

When she wanted to take a shower, she had to call the guard to turn on the water; there was no shower curtain, and the video system covered the shower area.

Joan Little’s tragic situation and her reaction to it shed light on prevailing injustices. A murder trial in the light of day caused onlookers to acknowledge acts that were being committed in the dark. According to CBS News coverage from the fortieth anniversary in 2015:

The trial drew national attention and her cause became a rallying cry for the civil rights, feminist and anti-death penalty movements.

Little, who was 21 at the time, was the first woman in the U.S. to win with what would turn out to be the groundbreaking defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault.

The Disrupters & Interlopers series highlights individuals from Southern history whose actions, though unpopular or difficult, contributed to changing the old status quo.

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