Her Bravery Helped Shape The Civil Rights Era

woman wearing black and white floral dress walking inside dark room
Zain Murdock
April 28, 2024

 In 1963, the police killing of Cynthia Scott meant she’d never get to tell her side of the story. Black newspapers and witnesses spoke to a history of police corruption concerning sex work, suggesting Scott refused to pay protection money or sexual favors to avoid arrest. But when 22-year-old Barbara Jackson survived a beating that next year, she told her side.

Notorious Detroit cop Raymond Peterson had arrested and beaten her after a white client falsely accused her of stealing. Jackson then filed a complaint and asked the Michigan Chronicle to publish a photograph of her battered face.

Whistleblowers faced deadly retaliation for challenging the system. But Jackson didn’t stop there. She filed another complaint with the FBI, and convinced the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to decide that Detroit police had violated her civil and constitutional rights.

Decades later, policing continues to harm Black sex workers. In New York, for example, 89% of 1,800 people accused of prostitution were nonwhite even though most of their clients were white men. Nationwide, police routinely harass and assault sex workers. Nationwide, Black trans women are especially criminalized for sex work based on appearance alone.

Fighting the exploitation of Black women shouldn’t stop no matter who’s behind it. And when we remember the Civil Rights era, the contribution of Black sex workers to the movement cannot be overlooked.

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