Protect Ya Neck: The Case of Joan Little, The First Woman in US History Acquitted for Using Deadly Force to Resist Sexual Assault

In the era of Me Too, especially for black women whose cries are rarely heard, and especially when Black women are disappearing and/or being killed at an alarming rate, it’s important to know history…and the history of defending yourself as a women against sexual assault, being heard, and fighting against a system designed to keep you caged. This history includes the case Joan Little, which is as inspiring as it is infuriating.

Joan Little, left, and defense attorney Karen Galloway in the lobby of the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, N.C., on July 14, 1975

On August 27, 1974, Joan (pronounced Jo Ann) Little was an inmate at the Beaufort Country Jail (North Carolina), were she was three months into her seven-year sentence for robbery. At around 4:00am, 62 year-old white jailer, Clarence Alligood, entered Joan’s cell with an ice pick, trying to force her into sexual acts. Joan, not being with the shits, acted in self-defense and used the ice pick on Alligood, stabbing him eleven times. Alligood bled to death, found nude from the waist down, as Joan escaped. She was only 20 years old.

Knowing the consequences awaiting a black woman, incarcerated at that, who killed a white guard, Joan hid in the surrounding area. A warrant had been issued for her arrest as she was classified as a fugitive and murderer. The state attempted to name her as an “outlaw” knowing that North Carolina was the “only state in the Union with an outlaw statue which allows any citizen to shoot on sight a person who has been declared an outlaw.”  Joan smartly lawyered up and arranged her surrender a little over a week later.
In her surrender, Little claimed the white jailer attempted to force her in to sex acts and she acted in self-defense. That didn’t stop a grand jury from handing down a secret indictment of 1st degree murder. This was without hearing testimony from the medical examiner who could speak to the fact that Joan was being sexually assaulted and that Alligood was found naked from the waist down, nor did the grand jury get a copy of the medical examiner’s report. And still, they charged Joan with 1st degree murder…a charge that carries a mandatory death sentence in North Carolina. Joan was positioned to be the 70th person on North Carolina’s death row.
The jail Little was attacked in had no women’s facilities. Little was the only woman in the cell block for most of her stay. There were TV monitors in the cells of women, limiting their privacy. And numerous women complained about the sexual advances/assaults made by the white male guards. The guards would often offer special privileges in exchange for sexual advances. Others were more forceful. Alligood had given Little sandwiches and cigarettes. On that fateful night of August 27th, Alligood came to collect his debt from Joan.

To add insult to injury, the evidence of the “attack” in Joan’s cell had been cleaned up prior to the State Bureau of Investigation arrival, which was a “violation of standard procedure in a murder case.” Despite this, the state denied the defense’s motion to have crucial evidence gathered for safekeeping. They also forced Joan to wear shackles, preventing her from greeting her supporters or the dignity of being a human who protected herself against assault.

Joan’s case became a major headline, with Time Magazine reporting on the now 21-year-old’s appearance in court. Mind you, this was a few years after the #FreeAngela movement and Civil Rights leader Angela Davis was very vocal in her support for Little, her rights to self-defense, and the sexual and racial abuse women faced in prisons. The case of Joan Little became a rallying cry, highlighting the injustices black women face.

Songs were created for Joan including a freedom song (below) written and performed by Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)  . Civil Rights organization also came out with support of Little. Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks formed a local chapter of the ‘Joan Little Legal Defense Committee” in Detroit. Maulana Karenga with the US Organization and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, head of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) both spoke out in support of Black women’s right to self defense.
I ask North Carolina, if there was a White woman who had stabbed a Black man who was attempting to rape her, would that White woman be on trial today? That white woman would be given a medal of honor. Well, hell, we think as much of our women as White men think of their women. – Rev. Ralph Abernathy
Black men and women were united in having Joan’s account of what transpired to be taken seriously and that she receive a fair trial. Joan Little’s case became a movement for the right of black women to be able to defend themselves while also highlighting the intersectionality of civil rights, women’s rights, prisoner rights, and the anti-death penalty movements.

Throughout all of this, Joan has no money. Her lawyers worked for free. She could not afford her bond. The Southern Poverty Law Center offered for help and raised money for her defense and her bail.

Little’s trial began on July 15, 1975. Little appeared on the stand and gave a captivating testimony of her account of what happened that night, even as the prosecutor attempted to peg Little as floozy who attempted to seduce Alligood into her cell to kill in order to escape. However, the autopsy of Alligood concluded that Little was acting in self-defense as only one of the eleven stab wounds was fatal. The other ten were signs of someone fighting off an attacker.

A jury of six whites and six blacks deliberated for 78 minutes before acquitting Joan of first degree murder. She was sent back to jail to serve the remaining time on her robbery sentence. Still not with the shits, Joan escaped again in 1977, a month short of parole. She was captured a few months later and was sent back to jail to serve time remaining plus time for escaping.

Joan Little was freed from prison in June 1979. She was 26. Joan Little disappeared from public view in 1989.

In 1977, James Reston Jr. authored a book on Little’s case titled: The Innocence of Joan Little: A Southern Mystery. In 2017, mega-producer Will Packer was planning on developing and producing a mini-series based on Reston’s book but to date the project is listed as “in progress“. This is definitely a story that needs to be seen and heard unlike that fan-fiction slave movie that might have starred Julia Roberts that will remain unnamed.

Little’s case opened the door for women, but black women specifically, to defend themselves against sexual attacks against their white male assaulters/rapists. Joan wasn’t the first person violated by Alligood but she was most certainly the last. Little’s case, and the massive support support surrounding it, shined a light on the atrocities black women, and women in general, face in attempting be safe from unwanted sexual advances and assaults, especially when vulnerable such as being incarcerated. In the hyper-aware era of “Me Too”, we must look at Little’s case to determine how far we have come and how far we have to go.

Thank you Joan Little for not being with the shits.

For more on Joan Little’s case, please visit HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.