Break Every Chain: How Black Plaintiffs in the South Sought Justice

Max Krupnick in Harvard Magazine: MOST AMERICAN SCHOOLCHILDREN learn about one Southern bus ride—on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks declined to cede her seat in the white section to a white man. Her refusal and ensuing arrest sparked the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott and catalyzed the civil rights movement. But few people know about another Southern bus ride. Two decades earlier in Jackson, Mississippi, a six-months-pregnant woman named Jessie Lee Garner boarded a bus and took the last seat in the colored section. A few stops later, a white man got on the bus and, seeing all the white seats taken, demanded Garner give up her spot. Though it was illegal for the man to enter the colored section, Garner said she told him she “was heavy with child” and would give him the seat in two blocks when she got off. Unprompted, the man punched Garner in the face twice, knocking her to the ground. Her dental work fell out, her eyes swelled, and her unborn child died.

Myisha Eatmon

Reading Garner’s story in the Mississippi state archives, Myisha Eatmon sobbed. Following the assault, Garner sued the company that operated Jackson’s buses. She and her attorney argued that the bus had not been sufficiently segregated—a sign separated the two sections rather than a physical partition, which state law required. An all-white jury awarded her $1,000 (about $22,000 today) to cover her “medical services, to pay nurses, [and] to pay servants to do her ordinary work,” and because she “suffered great pain and mental anguish.”

Eatmon, assistant professor of African and African American studies and of history, understood that a black woman suing after an attack defies the common perception of the Jim Crow South. She wanted to know more: Why did Garner press charges in civil rather than criminal court? How did she find out that she could sue, despite having no legal education? More broadly, were other African Americans suing to get redress for white violence? Eatmon’s research is part of the continuing excavation of how African Americans exercised agency during a legal and social regime designed to oppress them. (See the related features, “Fugitive Pedagogy,” March-April 2022, on black schooling, and “Both Sides Now,” January-February 2022, on the civil rights movement.)

In the Jim Crow South, legal and social systems prevented black people from protecting their rights in court. But Eatmon uncovered some black lawsuits that tell a different story. In 200 cases that she examined—a small slice of all black-initiated litigation—African Americans asserted their rights to exist free of white violence. Eatmon’s work, says professor of African and African American studies Jesse McCarthy, could “change how we understand the civil rights movement, which is so famously reliant on legal cases.” To find this hidden history of black agency, Eatmon mined previously understudied sources. More here.