Send an Email to Betty Jean Owens, a Living Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Heroine
Happy Black History Month, y’all, for the 49th time in American history. As we head into Black History Month this year, I’ll be sharing little-known moments in history that reflect the multifaceted ways in which black people have contributed to America’s tapestry.
I won’t assume that just because this history is new to me that it is also new to you, but the things I highlight will assuredly be new (or at least new-ish) to me, despite getting what felt like ALL the lessons from my parents growing up. It felt like we had every story book, coloring book, VHS, and album/tape/CD on black history. So, these people and moments in history weren’t there.
I was today years old when I first learned the incredible American history story of Betty Jean Owens, who is still alive and living in Florida. Thanks to technological advancement, this lesson started via Twitter.
The first day of Black History month will always be dedicated to my unsung hero. Thread. 👇🏾— Amontè L. Martin (@AmonteMartin) February 1, 2019
Betty Jean Owens is an African American woman who was brutally raped by four white men in Tallahassee, Florida in 1959. Her trial was significant in Florida, and the South as a whole, because the white men were given life sentences for their crimes.— Amontè L. Martin (@AmonteMartin) February 1, 2019
To provide more context for this harrowing experience, check out this excerpt from Professor Danielle L. McGuire’s article, "It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped": Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle:
On Saturday, May 2, 1959, four white men in Tallahassee, Florida, made a pact, one of their friends testified in court later, to "go out and get a nigger girl" and have an "all night party." That evening, they armed themselves with shotguns and switch- blades and crept up behind a car parked alongside a quiet road near Jake Gaither Park.
At about 1:00 a.m. on May 3, Patrick Scarborough pressed a sixteen-gauge shotgun against the driver's nose and ordered Richard Brown and his companions out of the car. Dressed in formal gowns and tuxedoes, the four African Americans- all students at Florida A&M University who had spent the evening dancing at the Green and Orange Ball-reluctantly stepped out of the car. Scarborough forced the two black men to kneel, while his friend David Beagles held the two black women at knifepoint.
When Betty Jean Owens began to cry, Beagles slapped her and told her to "shut up" or she "would never get back home." Waving his gun, Scarborough ordered Richard Brown and his friend Thomas Butterfield back in the car and told them to leave. As Brown and Butterfield began to move toward the car and then slowly drove away, Edna Richardson broke free and ran to the nearby park, leaving Betty Jean Owens alone with their attackers.
Beagles pressed the switchblade to Owens's throat and growled, "We'll let you go if you do what we want," then forced her to her knees, slapped her as she sobbed, and pushed her into the backseat of their blue Chevrolet; the four men drove her to the edge of town, where they raped her seven times.
Wikipedia describes what happened next this way:
Edna Richardson and the other two male students were able to make it back to their car and went to the local police station to report what had happened to them.
The officer on duty that night was a nineteen-year-old intern, Joseph D. Cooke, Jr. To the surprise of many people, he called for back up and searched for Owens. The officer spotted the assailant's car and a chase ensued.
Eventually, the men pulled their car over and the muffled screams of Owens could be heard from the car. She was bound and gagged on the backseat floorboard. The four men were then arrested and taken to jail. The four men did not take their arrest seriously and joked with each other on the way to prison. All four men confessed in writing to having abducted Owens at gunpoint and raping her.
FAMU’s students quickly organized deep, large-scale support for their classmate who had been so brutally attacked. Thousands of students demanded justice for Betty Jean Owens, and their large, vocal protests garnered national and international attention. The below picture shows over a thousand FAMU students who gathered on campus to demand justice for Betty Jean Owens.
Prominent civil rights leaders like Ella Baker (described by some as the most prominent female organizer in the Civil Rights Movement) and Martin Luther King Jr. followed the events closely and praised the students for their organization and strength in the face of enormous difficulties. Reverend King noted that FAMU’s students gave "hope to all of us who struggle for human dignity and equal justice." Check out his May 1959 letter to the students:
Even the BBC, a British public service broadcaster, ran footage of the protests. This attention, catalyzed by black students at FAMU, was impetus behind a grand jury being called in May of 1959.
So many things make this story so amazing. Betty Jean Owens survived, and thousands of her college classmates mobilized to ensure that her attackers were found and brought to trial. All in the 1950s Jim Crow South.
The attackers did not anticipate any of this. Recall that they joked about raping Betty Jean Owens as they were being arrested and driven to jail by the police. Even though the men voluntarily admitted to doing it, they pled not guilty and had an entire trial (check out the smaller headline from The Famuan campus newspaper - “Men Confess: Yet Plead ‘Not Guilty’”).
Betty Jean’s classmates showed up in full force to support her at the trial. The below photo shows FAMU students sitting in the courtroom at the trial. #SquadGoals
Betty Jean Owens bravely testified against them in open court in front of a crowd of roughly 400 people. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for her. While I do not want to give too much attention to the four attackers, it is worth noting here that their defense essentially revolved around trying to discredit Owens by describing her as a “jezebel” who voluntarily had intercourse with all of them.
Betty Jean Owens’ testimony was critical in securing the four convictions and subsequent life sentences.
This was the first time such a significant sentence had been given when a white attacker raped a black woman. In many other cases, white men either received no punishment at all or merely had to pay minimal fines. as was the case with Recy Taylor’s rapists in Alabama in 1944. Check out the below video for more context.
Tragically, Betty Jean Owens was not left to alone to heal physically and psychologically after this traumatic incident. Nor has her story been told with the same reverence of other civil rights-era events. Many people have never heard her story—and there’s a very tragic reason why.
My professor was giving a lecture on the civil rights movement, and how we weren't far-removed from that era. He said most of the people who fought for our rights are still living amongst us. He began to tell the story of Betty Jean Owens.— Amontè L. Martin (@AmonteMartin) February 1, 2019
After telling her story, my professor told us about how recently during a commencement ceremony, the President of FAMU called Betty Owens out of the audience to render homage. Being from Tallahassee, this story was interesting to me because I had never heard of Betty Jean Owens.— Amontè L. Martin (@AmonteMartin) February 1, 2019
At the time, I was living with my grandparents. When I got home I asked my grandmother (who's also from Tallahassee) if she had ever heard the story of Betty Jean Owens. Before I could tell her what I learned that day in class she began to cry. I asked, "Grandma, what's wrong?”— Amontè L. Martin (@AmonteMartin) February 1, 2019
I wiki'ed her and saw this little gem. In 1965, David Beagles, one of her attackers, was paroled. 4 years after he was released, he tracked down a woman he thought was Owens and murdered her and buried her in a shallow grave. However, he murdered the wrong Betty Jean.— Teresa B. Love ❄️🌊🌈🇺🇸⚖️🗽 (@partingsorrow) February 1, 2019
Yes, this is why she held on to her story for so long, for fear of “retaliation”.— Amontè L. Martin (@AmonteMartin) February 2, 2019
After all of this, Betty Jean Owens essentially had to keep her mouth shut, for fear of being murdered by one of her attackers, who had tried but killed the wrong woman.
I don’t know if your mouth fell open like mine did when I read the last tweets about what happened with the grandson and the attacker-turned-murderer, but whew chile, the hatred certainly ran deep.
Betty Jean Owens deserves all the accolades for surviving this. She serves as an important historical link between both the civil rights movement and the fight for women’s rights in this country.
The other striking point is that we are not far removed from the Civil Rights Movement. Betty Jean Owens is STILL ALIVE. As are some of her attackers. Incredibly, the dude who got out and murdered the wrong Betty Jean had his murder conviction overturned because inadmissible evidence had been admitted at his murder trial. He was actually out roaming free for some period until his apparent death in 2016, according to the Florida sex offender registry. No wonder Mrs. Owens never told anyone her story.
Today, however, is a new day. Her grandson, who wrote most of the tweets about this story, has even started a movement to send her letters of appreciation.
Send all letters to firstname.lastname@example.org . Thank you. 🙏🏾— Amontè L. Martin (@AmonteMartin) February 2, 2019
If you are so inclined, please take a moment to send an email of gratitude to Betty Jean Owens at email@example.com. As the original tweets point out, many of the people responsible for moving our country forward during that time are still alive. Black History Month is about more than remembering a few vestiges of some long-ago time. It is about giving people their flowers while they are still around to enjoy them.
Betty Jean Owens’ strength, in facing her attackers in the 1959 trial, helped make it possible for survivors today to speak up in ways that seemed impossible for women during that time period. She was the #METOO movement before there was a #METOO movement.
The four convictions in the Owens trial showed that the lives of black women could still matter in communities mired in hate. While we still have a long way yet to go, Betty Jean Owens is a pioneer whose groundbreaking efforts moved the needle in a positive direction.
We are, today, seeing the fruits of the sacrifices made during that time. Betty Jean Owens deserve our appreciation now.