This Day in History

Aug. 15: 1975: Joan Little Acquitted

Time Periods: Post-Civil Rights Era: 1975 - 2000
Themes: African American, Criminal Justice & Incarceration

Joan Little (left) and one of her attorneys (Karen Galloway) wait for an elevator July 14, 1975 in the Wake County Courthouse where Little was on trial for the 1974 stabbing death of one of her jailers. Source: Washington Area Spark.

Joan* Little was acquitted on this day in 1975, the first woman in U.S. history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault. She had killed a guard in self-defense while incarcerated.

Her case received national attention, leading her to say:

My life is not in the hands of the court. My life is in the hands of the people.

There were “Joanne Little Legal Defense Committees” all over the United States, including a local chapter formed by Rosa Parks in Detroit.

The Washington Area Spark offers the following description:

Little was jailed for minor crimes in the Beauford County, North Carolina jail. On August 27, 1974 white guard Clarence Alligood was found dead on Joan Little’s bunk naked from the waist down with stab wounds to his temple and heart. Semen was later discovered on his leg.

Little claimed self defense against sexual assault but was charged with first degree murder.

The case attracted national attention in part because Little would have received the death penalty if convicted. Civil rights advocates, death penalty opponents and women’s rights advocates all rallied to her defense.

Source: U.S. Prison Culture website.

The jury of six African Americans and six whites deliberated for about an hour and a half before delivering a not guilty verdict.

Little may have been the first woman in United States history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault. Her case also has become classic in legal circles as a pioneering instance of the application of scientific jury selection. Read in full.

The blog Prison Culture asks,

One has to wonder what it would take to build a similar coalition of groups and individuals in 2011 to take aim at dismantling the unjust prison industrial complex. The “Free Joan Little” movement is instructive because it underscores that it is possible to come together to address prisoner injustice and to WIN. Continue reading ‘Free Joan Little’: Reflections on Prisoner Resistance and Movement-Building.

Read more in Black Herstory: The Trial of the Decade at Ms. Magazine and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

Listen to the song Joanne Little by Bernice Johnson Reagon, sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock. It became an anthem for the “Free Joan Little” movement. (Lyrics below.)

I always walked by the golden rule, steered clear of controversy …

Till along come this woman, little over five feet tall

Charged and jailed with breaking the law …

First-degree murder she was on the loose, Joanne …What is she to you?

Joanne Little, she’s my sister. Joanne Little, she’s our mama. Joanne

Little, she’s your lover. Joanne’s the woman who’s gonna carry your

child…

This is 1975 at it most oppressive best.

North Carolina state, the pride of this land, made her an outlaw…

Tell me what she did to deserve this name?

Killed a man who thought she was fair game.

When I heard the news, I screamed inside.

Lost all my cool. My anger I could not hide. …

Joanne is you. Joanne is me. Our prison is the whole society

’cause we live in a land that’ll bring all pressure to bear

on the head of a woman whose position we share.

*Note Joan is pronounced Jo-ann so often spelled Joann or Joanne.