Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

The Body, Sexuality, and Self-Defense in State vs. Joan Little, 1974-1975

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

The Body, Sexuality, and Self-Defense in State vs. Joan Little, 1974-1975

Article excerpt

I ran because it was self-defense. ... [I]f the authorities there [in Beaufort County] had gotten to me before any other body, ... I never would have been here to tell what really happened.

Joan Little (September 1974) (1)

Sometimes one has to become differently reliable than one has been. ... Sometimes people and possibilities just change; lives are regularly reordered by complex synergies of choice and chance. ... Whether or not there is damage to reckon, the reestablishment of reliability after changes in course--not staying in formation but being again reliably responsible from here--may fairly be described as integrity.

Margaret Urban Walker (1997) (2)

When the murder trial, State of North Carolina vs. Joan Little, began on 14 July 1975, it had already become one of the nation's most "highly publicized trials" in a decade of highly publicized trials such as the ones of Angela Davis, those surrounding the prison uprising at Attica, New York, and those of "the Wilmington 10," "the Charlotte 3," and Inez Garcia. (3) The level of pre-trial publicity for State vs. Joan Little, the strategy of her attorneys, the media, and the "Free Joan Little" Movement combined to require a public statement in the courtroom prior to the selection of the first juror. "The defendant is entitled to have her case tried in the calmness of a courtroom and not as a spectacle in an arena," the presiding judge Hamilton H. Hobgood announced in his opening statement. (4) Yet with all of his carefully prepared rules for the news media, his specific attention to judicial procedures, and his insistence upon proper courtroom decorum, State vs. Joan Little, and the "Free Joan Little" Movement surrounding it, became a strange amalgam of spectacle, stringent procedures, extra-judicial statements, and nation-wide demonstrations. (5)


For four weeks between 14 July and 15 August 1975 inside the Wake County Courthouse, attorneys for Joan Little implemented a skillful strategic defense, while the defendant faced her accusers, heard witnesses, and gave testimony on her own behalf. A section of the courtroom was reserved for the more than one hundred representatives of the media from around the world. One journalist-lawyer dutifully attended everyday taking careful notes in preparation for a book on State vs. Joan Little. Little's defense team included not only talented lawyers, but also a jury selection expert and a psychic. Outside the courthouse, a diverse group of demonstrators daily gathered to show support for Little. They were as aware as the defense team of a necessary relationship between a visible, vocal social movement and the outcome of the trial. Celebrities such as Angela Davis, Julian Bond, and William Kunstler made appearances on different days of the trial. Judge Hobgood received daily stacks of mail--typed, handwritten, and scrawled--supporting or denouncing Joan Little. (6) Little, her attorneys, and supporters fought to ensure that Little be spared execution in the gas chamber. Little, an inmate in the Beaufort County jail awaiting appeal of a breaking and entering conviction, had been indicted for first-degree murder for killing the county jailer, Clarence Alligood. Claiming "self-defense," Little insisted under oath that Alligood had sexually assaulted her in jail on 27 August 1974. On 15 August 1975, what had been hailed as the "Biggest Civil Rights Trial of [the] '70s," ended with the announcement of a unanimous verdict. A jury of six African Americans and six whites, both male and female, acquitted Joan Little of all charges. (7)

This essay is concerned with Joan Little's self-defense and the historical significance of State vs. Joan Little as the instrument by which she, her attorneys, and her supporters challenged a dominant narrative in U.S. history concerning African American women, their rights, and their moral/ethical identity. Little was offered the opportunity to leave the United States and escape legal proceedings in the death of the jailer. …

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