History

Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks, and the Struggle for Racial Justice

NMAAHC

Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper, was walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama, on September 3, 1944, when she was abducted and gang raped by six white men. The crime, which N.A.A.C.P. activist Rosa Parks investigated and which garnered extensive coverage in the black press, never saw the indictment of the accused.  

In the film The Rape of Recy Taylor, director Nancy Buirski explores Taylor’s story, Rosa Parks’ work on her behalf, and the history of racial violence, particularly against women, in the postwar South.

 

“After World War I,” Danielle L. McGuire writes in At the Dark End of the Street, “the Alabama Klan unleashed a wave of terror designed to return ‘uppity’ African Americans to their proper place in the segregated social order.”

It was against that backdrop that Parks witnessed and sought justice for the victims of widespread bigotry rippling throughout the state. Alongside other activists, Parks founded the "Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor" to bring widespread attention to the case. With the support of W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell and Langston Hughes, among others, the case rose to prominence, but still faltered under the weight of entrenched bigotry.

“Whites didn’t like blacks having that kind of attitude,” Parks said, referring to the return of black soldiers to the South, many of whom expected better treatment following their military service. “[S]o they started doing all kinds of violent things to black people to remind them that they didn’t have rights.”

Indeed, the problem of racial prejudice in the South was a deep-seated one—a problem founded on a longstanding history of intimidation.

“Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II,” McGuire asserts, referencing the uptick in rumors of black-on-white rape “whenever African Americans asserted their humanity or challenged white supremacy.”

Mrs. Recy Taylor, 1944, credit: The Rape of Recy Taylor

Courtesy of The People's World/Daily Worker and Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

Faced with few options for legal recourse, African American women chose to share their stories, drawing on a longstanding history of testimony and truth-telling to shed light on their pain.

“While survivors of sexualized violence rarely received justice in Southern courts,” McGuire writes, “black women like Recy Taylor who were raped by white men in the 1940s used their voices as weapons against white supremacy.”

It wasn’t until 2011, nearly 60 years after the case, that the state of Alabama issued a formal apology to Taylor for her treatment by the state’s legal system.

“[Taylor] was an American hero and an Alabama treasure who spoke up in the face of racism, hate and sexual violence,” Alabama Rep. Terri A. Sewell said in a statement. “By standing up to injustice over six decades ago, Recy Taylor inspired generations of men and women to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.” 

Taylor died in Abbeville on Dec. 21, 2017, three weeks after the release of The Rape of Recy Taylor. She was 97.

Though Recy Taylor’s case did not succeed in the short term, the fact that women like Taylor were telling their stories at a time of pronounced stigma and intimidation drew nationwide attention to issues of racial violence, mobilizing communities and building coalitions that would become the pillars of the civil rights movement.

Recy Taylor article in The Chicago Defender, credit: The Rape of Recy Taylor.

NMAAHC