Joan Little (right) with Larry Little (left, no relation) at a news conference sponsored by the Black Panthers, August 22, 1975. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.
Though we lack a precise date for this recording, context clues place Little’s talk within the immediate aftermath of the 1975 Women’s Prison strike. On June 15, 150 women prisoners refused to return to their dormitories when guards announced lockup at 8:00 p.m., gathering together to stage a peaceful sit-in on the grass of the prison yard. Supporters prepared to stay overnight on the outside of the fence. Their demands were wide ranging, though the most immediate catalyst for the demonstration seemed to be the appalling conditions in the laundry. In Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South, Saralee Stafford and Shirley Neal write:
The women were not just required to do NCCCW’s laundry but that of the entire State prison system . . . Balancing the budget apparently included forcing women to work in a 120-degree environment while handling tuberculosis-infected clothing with no safety equipment. The forced, unpaid, and dangerous work at the laundry compounded the larger institutionalized medical neglect at the prison. Reports from prisoners of this abuse were well documented, though typically ignored. Racial discrimination as well.2
Little described the significance of advocacy beyond prison walls: “I really feel that most of those sisters would have been, not only beaten, there would be a lot of them dead right now, because of the support that was outside of those gates the entire time the protest was going on, that was the reason why there were only as few injured as there were.”
This tracks with Safford and Neal’s documentation of the night of the sit-in, in which inmates were assaulted by prison guards and given group punishment:
According to one witness, “Others tried to help and were beaten. Once inside the gym, sounds of breaking glass, screams, and pounding noises could be heard.’ A prisoner later wrote, ‘The first blow was struck by the guard to a prisoner while on the front lawn. Others were carried by guards into the auditorium and thrown on top of one another.”3
Despite the guard’s retaliation, the inmates continued their protest, holding their ground until June 19. Dozens identified as ‘ringleaders’ were shipped to a men’s correctional facility, while more than fifty others were given additional time on their sentences combined with intimidation, solitary confinement, and denied parole. “You know that the sisters are going to be convicted,” Little tells the crowd gathered at UNC. “It’s going to be an undercover thing. And ain’t nobody gonna know about it but just the prison officials. That’s one reason why they cut off the communication. Because they don’t want the sisters to write out here and tell you what’s going on.”
In a zine published by inmates a year after the strike, Break de Chains of Legalized U.$. Slavery, produced in collaboration with the North Carolina Women’s Prison Book Project and the Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists Prison Book Project, the collected authors urged a consistent message of solidarity. “Unless a person has been confined and subjected to the cruel environment in which we live, it would be difficult for them to comprehend our reasons for wanting to be recognized as human beings and not animals in a cage,” wrote Anne C. Willett in a detailed examination of the events of the strike as she remembers them. “Keep us locked in, 24 hours a day, keep threatening us with sticks and tear gas, and keep thinking we will crawl to them, albeit, they will be the losers because from now on the toys will not move as they want them to. We have strong minds, deep determination and we will remain united in our struggle for justice.”4
Little is explicit with her gathered audience about the importance of genuine acts of solidarity from those outside of the prison system: “It’s not something that you can go home and forget. Because we’re out here . . . So I’m asking all of you, you know—this may be the last time that you even ever see me again. But one thing that I can say, is that regardless of how my trial comes out, regardless of however it comes out—I can say this: that I am going to leave behind those sisters, and it means that I have to lose my life, to prove to the people that everything the police says is not true, and everything that they do is not justifiable, then I feel that that is my right.” It is striking that this is the first time she mentions her own upcoming trial throughout her talk, at about eighteen minutes into the recording. Her appearance at UNC was an opportunity for her to raise consciousness about the pain and suffering happening just a few miles down the road at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women—to underscore that every person incarcerated has a story, a voice, and a personhood worth defending.
Little’s appearance has modern-day comparisons: in 2016, UNC students hosted Cece McDonald, a Black trans activist who fought back against a racist mob that attacked her in 2011 outside of a nightclub. She was charged with murder and faced up to eighty years. “While in prison,” the event description read, “she discovered that her story was far from unique and that she was among many Black people, especially Black trans womyn, who had been railroaded into the prison system.” Similarly, in June 2021, Scalawag magazine republished excerpts of Anne C. Willett’s essay in Break De Chains alongside a letter from A. L. Harris, currently incarcerated at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Pasquotank, North Carolina. “Scalawag publishes the account of A. L. Harris in honor of survivors of state violence and in memory of the lives of those harmed and killed by police,” the preface notes. “Bearing witness to the realities of those who were and still are incarcerated is the first step on the abolitionist journey this week. It cannot be the last.”
Joan Little retreated from public life in 1989, following a minor charge involving stolen vehicle plates. Her story is frequently flattened to some kind of flash in the pan, more important for legal history than for the administration of justice. This has lent itself to people attempting to “fill in the gaps.” A 1997 thesis out of the history department at UNC, titled “Remembering Joan Little: The Rise and Fall of a Mythical Black Woman,” underscores the degree to which scholars, writers, critics, and supporters alike projected their own beliefs about her guilt or innocence onto her life. Who gets to say that Little had a fall—or that she consented to being mythologized in the first place?
Little’s speech at UNC makes clear that she was not a lone figurehead. She was concerned with the lives of those who had walked similar paths—those who feared being forgotten behind prison walls, lost within a system designed not to rehabilitate, but to punish without oversight. Little knew that making the demands of those incarcerated known is one of the most powerful ways to exercise solidarity with those on the inside, to begin to chip away at our carceral system more broadly.
Little’s speech at UNC makes clear that she was not a lone figurehead. She was concerned with the lives of those who had walked similar paths.
Throughout its relatively brief existence, WAFR in Durham was something remarkable. A listener might have tuned in one night to hear Joan Little’s UNC broadcast, and an interview with a Black Panther the next. The Media and Movement archives offer a glimpse into North Carolina as a beating pulse of the Civil Rights Movement, utilizing a variety of mediums to elevate the voices of those on the front lines. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of WAFR’s folding, with an expansive book on Joan Little forthcoming from historian Genna Rae McNeil, we can relish these recordings for what they are: not only primary sources of this history but ways of feeling the revolutionary presence of a woman committed to justice for herself and for so many others.