Recy Taylor: A Symbol of Jim Crow’s Forgotten Horror
After her brutal gang rape, Recy Taylor became a global symbol of American injustice and helped inspire the civil rights movement. So why has nobody heard of her today?
It’s curious, to say the least, that Taylor’s name is not mentioned in history books. While most analyses of circumstances that inspired the civil rights movement focus on black men — being lynched or railroaded into jail, or facing down segregationists — the stories of countless black women like Recy Taylor, who were raped by white men during the same era, have gone understated, if not overlooked entirely.
Nearly 70 years later, having such a brutal attack swept under the rug is still a source of pain for a surviving victim.
“Wasn’t nothing done about it,” Taylor, now 91, told The Root in a phone interview from her Florida home. “The sheriff never even said he was sorry it happened. I think more people should know about it … but ain’t nobody [in Abbeville] saying nothing.”
Two days later, he remembers, someone threw a firebomb at the home of Taylor, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter. “After that, they moved in with us,” said Corbitt. “At night, my father would sit in a tree and guard the house with a shotgun.”
The following month, in a farce of a grand jury trial at which none of the assailants even showed up, an all-white, all-male jury elected not to indict.
The family didn’t know it back then, but Parks, dispatched by the Montgomery NAACP to investigate the case, was setting the gears in motion for a far-reaching campaign. “Miss Parks told me to go with her to Montgomery until things were clear,” said Taylor, who stayed for three months in a rooming house, arranged for by Parks, before returning home. “She was trying to get something done. I’m not sure what. I was young and didn’t know nothing about law and stuff like that.”
Parks saw an opportunity to hold up Taylor’s story as a national example of Southern injustice. She partnered with other progressive groups — including the now mostly forgotten Southern Negro Youth Congress, the defense team of the Scottsboro Boys, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other labor organizers, as well as communist networks — to form the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. The coalition became a national movement that the Chicago Defender called “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade,” and daily stories on the case were printed in newspapers across the nation, from Baltimore to Los Angeles.
But not in the tiny town of Abbeville, where Taylor’s family was largely unaware of the proceedings. Corbitt had quite a shock, years later, as a soldier stationed in Germany. “A German guy asked me where I was from, and when I told him Alabama, he started to tell a story he knew about that happened there,” he said. “He was talking about my sister.”