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'The Rape of Recy Taylor': How one woman's fight galvanized the Black community and sparked the Civil rights movement

Before Rosa Parks came to the fore with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Recy Taylor had been engaged in a bitter battle for justice her rape by six men. This is her story.
UPDATED FEB 13, 2020
Rosa Parks (Source : Getty Images)
Rosa Parks (Source : Getty Images)

Rosa Parks is rightly recognized as 'the first lady of civil rights' and 'the mother of the freedom movement' for her pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott beginning 1955, as well as her subsequent involvement in the civil rights movement that saw the country abolish racial segregation. But before Parks, there was one other activist who, arguably, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, but is often overlooked, despite their paths having coincided in their community's push for equal rights; forgotten and condemned to the footnotes of history. 

The story of Recy Taylor is one that, unfairly, does not get the attention it deserves. Taylor was just 24 when she was abducted and raped by six men in Alabama, with all-white, all-male grand juries refusing to convict the men despite their confessions and the significant evidence accrued. At a time when racial inequalities were still significant problems in the society and the African-American community was under the thumb of the ruling whites, Taylor refused to remain silent, invigorating and organizing her people on behalf of justice and civil rights. 

Oprah Winfrey brought up Taylor during her Golden Globes speech (Source: Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Taylor passed away this past December, at the age of 97, with her fight for integrity brought back into the spotlight by Oprah Winfrey during this year's Golden Globe Awards during her acceptance speech for the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award. She said: "They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone . . . Recy Taylor died 10 days ago. . .for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared speak their truth to the power of those men . . . And I just hope — I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth . . . goes marching on."

The Congressional Black Caucus then closely followed suit by leading Democratic Caucus members in wearing red "Recy" pins while attending the 2018 State of the Union, where Taylor's granddaughter, Mary Joyce Owens, was a guest.

Documentary 'The Rape of Recy Taylor' will look to explore the events that defined Taylor as one of the leading voices for the African-Americans and will air on Starz beginning July 2nd. Directed produced and written by Nancy Buirski, it has been described as 'an epic story of sexual violence in the Jim Crow South, when courageous black women fight back to take back their bodies and their dignity.'

At a time when it appears as though the same racial tensions that plagued the country throughout the duration of the previous century are back in full force, it's more important than ever to remember activists such as Taylor and Parks, who fought to ensure that such issues remained condemned to the past. As the saying goes, 'Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.'

September 3, 1944, Abbeville: A 24-year-old Taylor was walking back home from church with her friend Fannie Daniel and her teenage son when a car containing US Army Private Herbert Lovett and six other men —  Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Hugo Wilson, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble — pull up to the side of the road. Lovett falsely accused Taylor of 'cutting that white boy in Clopton,' and the seven men proceeded to force her into the car at gunpoint.

They proceeded to drive her to a patch of trees on the side of the road and forced her to remove her clothes, threatening to kill her if she does not oblige. Her protests and appeals with the men to let her go back home to her husband and her infant child fell on deaf ears. The assailants removed all her clothes, with Lovett ordering her to lie down and to 'act just like you do with your husband,' and six of the seven took turns in raping her.

A fear of victim-shaming and the possibility of having to relive the experience means that even today rape victims often decide against filing a complaint and remain tight-lipped about their assault. Back in the 40s, when feminism was still in its embryonic stages and women were treated as often second-class citizens, reports were even fewer. Take into account that Taylor was both, a woman and African-American, the culprits would have likely expected her to retreat with her tail between her legs. But she had other plans in mind; that of upholding her honor.

The kidnapping and assault were reported to the police immediately, and the car was identified as belonging to Wilson, who admitted he had picked up Taylor and driven her as well as the six other men to the spot of the rape. Wilson named the six other men in the car as the culprits, but instead of arresting them, the police instead fined Wilson $250, leading to a mass outrage in the town's black community.

The event was brought to the notice of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Montgomery, Alabama, who sent down their best investigator and activist against sexual assaults on black women to look into the case — Rosa Parks.

The fight:

Parks took the case back to Montogomery and began drumming up support for Taylor for the upcoming trial which she knew was going to be anything but straightforward. She and her allies formed the 'Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Taylor' with support from national labor unions, African-American organizations, and numerous women's groups. Soon, the black community across the country caught wind of the case, and by Spring 1945, the movement had become what was described as 'the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in over a decade.'

The odds had never been in Taylor's favor — from the police refusing to arrest the assailants to the all-encompassing and pervasive racism and white supremacy in law enforcement and the justice system at the time — however when the trial date did arrive, it became apparent how gamed the courts were at the time. 

An all-white, all-male jury had been put in place to hear her case, and because none of the six rapists had been arrested, the only witnesses the prosecutors could present were Taylor's black friends and family. Her family could not identify the names of the culprits, and since Abbeville's Sheriff Gamble had not arranged for a police line-up, Taylor could not identify her attackers in court either.

It took the jury all of five minutes of deliberation to come back with their verdict: the men were not guilty. 

The pushback:

Unsurprisingly, Taylor's quest for justice was not received well by her town's white majority, and stories began to spread of how she was a 'prostitute' and a 'willing participant' in the rape that night. In the months following the trial, she received multiple death threats, and her home was firebombed by white supremacists. Along with her husband and child, she had to move to her family home, where her father and siblings could help protect her from the violent threats and the angry vigilantes.

But while Taylor was left fearing for her life and safety, Parks and activists from NAACP chapters across the country were working tirelessly to see that her story reached the far corners of the States. The ploy worked, and after the likes of the Pittsburgh Courier and New York Daily News slammed the trial's verdict as a grave injustice, then-Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks reluctantly agreed to launch another investigation into the incident.

Sheriff Gamble was interviewed once again regarding the assault but he cooked up the facts. He falsely claimed that he had started an investigation of his own after the attack and that he had arrested all of the men two days after the assault. He also accused Taylor of being 'nothing but a whore around Abbeville' and that she had been 'treated for some time by the Health Officer of Henry County for venereal disease.'

However, other white men from the town identified her as an 'upstanding, respectable woman who abided by the town's racial and sexual mores,' and it looked as though the investigation had begun swinging in her favor. Four of the seven men admitted to having sex with Taylor, with Culpepper even admitting that he and the others were looking for a woman on the night of the attack. He also said that Lovett got out of the car with a gun to speak to Taylor, forced her into the car, made her undress, raped her and then blindfolded her and left her on the side of the road. The story was an exact retelling of the account Taylor had originally given to law enforcement.

Despite the significant pile of evidence, on February 14, 1945, a second all-white male jury once again refused to issue any indictments against the men.

Victory in defeat and an eventual acceptance of fault:

Taylor did continue to live in Abbeville with her family for two decades after the attack, though she personally admitted it was not a pleasant experience. She said that, during those years, she lived 'in fear, and many white people in the town continued to treat her badly, even after her attackers left.' She would end up moving to Florida in 1965 and lived there until her family brought her back to Abbeville due to her failing health.

While the verdict sent shockwaves through the African-American community, the benefit of hindsight shows that it proved to be vital to the mobilization of civil rights activists across the country and the birth of what would come to be the civil rights movement. Her contributions in bringing attention to the atrocities and sexual violence against black women are not to be scoffed at either.

The Montgomery bus boycott and the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60s meant that Taylor's story was all but forgotten; condemned to an afterthought. It would take another six decades for her to see some acknowledgment of the wrong that she had suffered.

The publication of  Danielle L. McGuire's book 'At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power' in 2011 finally led to formal apologies from the Alabama legislature to Taylor on behalf of the state. A joint resolution decreed that their failure to act was and is 'morally abhorrent and repugnant' and apologized profusely for the government's apathy regarding her case.

State Representative Dexter Grimsley, along with Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock and Henry County Probate Judge JoAnn Smith, also personally apologized to Taylor for the treatment she had received.

Poignantly, she received the apology when she was on a visit to Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, the very church where she worshipped the night of the crime. "I felt good. That was a good day to present it to me. I wasn't expecting that," she said.

She passed away in her sleep at a nursing home in Abbeville on December 28, 2017, aged 97 and while her story may once again be forgotten, her legacy as a pioneer of the African-American community will forever be etched in stone.