I saw my Momma work as a slave to the whites, as a housekeeper to a white family. I swore that would never happen to me." What has happened to Joan (pronounced Jo-Ann) Little is far worse. The 21-year-old black woman from rural North Carolina is charged with stabbing a prison guard to death a year ago. She admits killing 62-year-old Clarence Alligood: her trial, now in its fourth week in Raleigh, seeks to discover why.

Joan Little contends Alligood threatened her with an ice pick and forced her to have sex with him in the cell where she was a prisoner. Afraid he was going to kill her, Little says she wrestled the ice pick from him "at his weakest moment" and stabbed him 11 times. Then she fled. Little's cause is being championed by civil rights and militant feminist groups who view Joan as the latest victim of a white, male-dominated society.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents Little, raised nearly $300,000 through the mails. Her lawyers—there are six of them on a 25-member defense team that costs about $3,500 a week—carefully examined the backgrounds of prospective jurors. For the final selection, a psychic and a body language expert were employed. (The jury makeup of seven whites and five blacks is considered favorable to her defense.)

Understandably, Joan is appreciative. "If it hadn't been for Jerry [her white attorney Jerry Paul] and Julian Bond [president of the Poverty Law Center], I wouldn't have a decent lawyer because I am poor and black. If my case shows the discrimination which exists, it will be worthwhile."

The prosecution portrays Joan as a high school dropout, petty thief and prostitute who lured jailer Alligood into her cell with a promise of sexual favors and killed him to escape. When the trial began, she says, "I was so confused, I didn't want to do anything. Then Jerry started taking me around with him to interview witnesses and got me reading law books so I would understand what was going on."

Now, during the long court sessions, Joan takes copious notes and sometimes writes poetry. (A recent example: "I grew up in the slums / But I am somebody. / I got in with 'bad company' / Begging, stealing for what / I thought was right. / That didn't make me any less / I am still somebody.")

Each evening Joan, who is free on $115,000 bail, is escorted back to her hotel room by lawyers and bodyguards (several threats have been made on her life). Occasionally she ventures out for a hamburger and soda. "It's a pretty confining existence," she says. "But it sure beats jail."

The oldest of nine children, Joan was born in Chocowinity, N.C. "I remember being sent to Rawls restaurant for barbecue for my mother. It had separate doors for blacks and whites, and on our side the salt and pepper shakers were pickle jars with holes punched in the lids. On the white side, they were nice sets of matched glass. The [civil rights] laws changed things a little, but not much. The signs are gone, but the feeling of separateness is still there."

Joan dropped out of high school three weeks before graduation and became a plasterboard finisher. She earned as much as $255 a week until she was arrested in 1973 for shoplifting and concealing a sawed-off rifle. Within a year she was convicted of burglary and was serving time in the Beaufort County Jail in Washington, N.C, while awaiting an appeal.

It was there, early in the morning of Aug. 27, 1974, that Little contends Alligood walked in, wearing only his socks and shirt, and compelled her to commit oral sex. "It was self-defense," Joan said before her trial began. "I'm sorry it happened. I feel for his family—I don't want to see them hurt. But I can only tell the truth."