History

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

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

Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper, was walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama, on Sept. 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 an indictment for 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.

In 1944, a 24-year-old Afro-American woman from Alabama was raped by six white men. Her case was defended by Rosa Parks, a legendary human rights activist. Using old film footage about racial incidents, the director speaks out on the issue of the sexual exploitation of black women.

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In the book “At the Dark End of the Street” Danielle L. McGuire writes, “After World War I, 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 this 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 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, however, the accused were never brought to justice.

“Whites didn’t like blacks having that kind of attitude,” Parks said of black soldiers returning to the South. Many soldiers expected better treatment following their military service. Southerners instead “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% of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II,” says McGuire. He references 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 Dec. 21, 2017, three weeks after the release of “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” She was 97.

The fact that Recy, and women who suffered similar crimes, told their stories in the face of intimidation brought nationwide attention to issues of racial violence. Alhough the Recy Taylor case did not succeed in the short term, the bravery of these women helped to mobilize communities and build coalitions that would become the pillars of the civil rights movement.

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

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