Recy Taylor was abducted and raped at gunpoint by seven white men in Abbeville, Ala., on Sept. 3, 1944. Her attack, one of uncounted numbers on black women throughout the Jim Crow era in the South, sparked a national movement for justice and an international outcry, but justice never came. Now, decades later, there may finally be some solace for Taylor, 91, as Alabama state Rep. Dexter Grimsley tries to make his state issue a formal apology.
Reached by phone on Monday, Grimsley confirmed he is drafting a resolution for a state apology to Taylor. "The circumstances merit it," he said. "It’s something that should be done. Recy Taylor found herself in a situation that wasn’t responded to, the way that the law would respond to something today."
The FBI is currently investigating dozens of civil rights-era murders, mostly of men. But the sexual violence visited upon women like Taylor has never commanded the official attention of the FBI and other federal and state officials who have tried to right the crimes of our past.
"From slavery through the better part of the 20th century, white men in the segregated South abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity and often impunity," explained historian Danielle McGuire, whose new book "At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance" was the first history of white-on-black sexual violence and black women’s organized resistance to it. "They lured black women and girls away from home with promises of work and steady wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work, church or school; and sexually harassed them at bus stops, grocery stores and in other public spaces."
New awareness of Taylor’s case, and of the pervasiveness of many more cases like it, has begun attracting new bands of supporters who want justice for past crimes of sexual violence against black women–from members of an online social network for social change, to the NAACP Alabama State Conference, to a black lawyers’ association in Michigan, to individual letter writers and callers from all over the country who have contacted Taylor’s family.
In October 1944, a Henry County grand jury heard Taylor’s case. All seven alleged perpetrators were identified, after one man who was picked up by the sheriff the night of the rape identified them and confessed most of the details. But no evidence was gathered, and the grand jury returned no indictments.
It might have ended there, but in November 1944, Rosa Parks and other prominent activists, supported by national labor unions, African-American organizations and women’s groups launched the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, which brought her case to the national stage. International attention pressured segregationist Gov. Chauncey Sparks to grudgingly launch an investigation in December 1944. At various times, both the Henry County sheriff and the perpetrators lied to investigators with claims that Taylor was paid and was widely known as a prostitute.
Despite further admissions from perpetrators, signed affidavits from eyewitnesses, and other evidence, a second grand jury in February 1945 returned no indictments.
It therefore came as some surprise to Taylor’s youngest brother, Robert Corbitt in November 2007, when he typed his sister’s name into an Internet search box and found an article by McGuire detailing his sister’s story, answering many questions that had long gone unanswered, and correcting the alleged perpetrators’ lies about his sister.
"That was the first tiny bit of justice that we got," Corbitt, 74, said in a phone interview.
Corbitt and Taylor are far from alone in waiting for justice. "My research covers about 64 cases of white on black rape from 1940 to 1975 and is not exhaustive in any way," McGuire said about her book in an e-mail interview.
"I found black women’s testimonies of sexual violence everywhere I looked," added McGuire. "I focused almost entirely on cases that had already become public in one way or another–mainly through a court hearing, congressional testimony, a letter to an NAACP or DOJ official or a newspaper story. I did not do a county by county survey in any southern state, nor did my research cover every southern state.
"Black women often testified about their assaults–in churches, courtrooms, and in congressional hearings. They wrote letters to their local NAACP chapter, to the Justice Department, and to other organizations. Their stories appeared on the front pages of black newspapers (and sometimes ‘white’ newspapers) throughout the 1940s and 1950s. And nearly every memoir written by a black woman who participated in the long freedom struggle, including the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, talks about interracial sexual violence (either their own victimization or someone close to them) as being a motivator or catalyst for their entree into civil rights activism. A small sample includes: Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Daisy Bates, Rosa Parks, Melba Patillo Beals, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Fannie Lou Hamer, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Assata Shakur."
Taylor’s willingness at age 24 to speak about what happened to her helped to spark an under-recognized mass-movement against sexual violence and racism in the 1940s. Further, McGuire shows in her book that the mobilization by Rosa Parks and others in the 1940s on behalf of Taylor established the community networks that became the basis for the Montgomery bus boycott a decade later.
Taylor’s willingness at 91 to again speak publicly about her experience has sparked the very new, mounting call to address the untold number of rapes that Taylor and other black women have historically suffered at the hands of whites.
In February, 23-year-old editor Alex DiBranco at Change.org, saw news coverage reporting that Taylor and her brother wanted a public apology from the city of Abbeville and the state of Alabama. Before heading out on vacation on Feb. 16, DiBranco put up a petition asking Alabama officials to issue the requested apologies.
"When I came back I saw that it had garnered 1,000 signatures," DiBranco said.
That was on Feb. 28. Now there are more than 2,100 signatures–all gathered organically, without any outreach from DiBranco to website members.
Following the initial success of the petition, DiBranco got in touch with Corbitt, who decided to put the petition under his name. She also got in touch with Grimsley, who represents Henry County, which includes Abbeville. Grimsley had read McGuire’s book and was watching the petition.
"We have a saying in the African American community that you want to give a person their flowers when they’re alive," said Detroit attorney Diane Hutcherson, board member and past president of the Wolverine Bar Association, a Michigan group for African-American lawyers that has added its support to widening efforts to win recognition of the injustice Taylor suffered. "This was a woman who spoke out when she didn’t have to, despite enormous threats," Hutcherson continued. "We want to give her her flowers while she’s living, meaning the apology and, if possible, a Presidential Medal of Freedom."
NAACP Alabama State Conference President Bernard Simelton, when reached by phone on Tuesday, said that his organization wants "to see justice is served in this case and to see individuals responsible held accountable."
Robert Corbitt says he’s been receiving letters and phone calls from around the country, as well as from Abbeville residents, white and black. "I haven’t got one negative comment about it," he said.
"There is a particular silence around rape with black women," noted Aishah Shahidah Simmons, filmmaker of NO! The Rape Documentary. "It is outrageous that many prominent civil rights leaders haven’t spoken out against" these crimes, Simmons said. "By not addressing them we’re saying black women’s lives are not important. It plays a role [in] how black women’s lives are viewed contemporarily."
Six of the southern, formerly segregated states place no statute of limitations on the crime of rape: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina. Yet local police and county sheriffs rarely have the staff or the budgets to conduct investigations. Furthermore, in small communities officials may lack motivation because they would be investigating their own relatives or the politically powerful.
When it comes to decades-old racial murders, the FBI can investigate cases even when there is no federal jurisdiction. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act of 2008 directs the FBI to investigate and to do community outreach with the express purpose of supporting or encouraging state and local action.
Asked if the FBI could play a similar role in addressing decades-old racially motivated rapes, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said, "The public is always welcome to report an allegation of a crime to their local FBI office, where it will be reviewed to determine if a federal violation exists."
No special consideration would be made. "We would handle [It] as we do every other allegation of a crime: on its own merits," said Allen.
Robert Corbitt has for some years been tracking the lives of the seven men alleged to have raped his sister: Hugo Wilson, Dillard York, Luther Lee, William Howerton, Joe Culpepper, Robert Gamble and Herbert Lovett. Six of the men are now dead, according to Corbitt, and there is one who may still be alive.
But Corbitt and his sister Taylor aren’t focused on the perpetrators now. They are focused, instead, on the state’s apology for failing to provide justice. They want the truth officially acknowledged by the city and state that so completely failed Taylor.
"I would like to see her have some peace before she leaves this earth," Corbitt said. "What hurt her the most was their saying this never happened."
Ben Greenberg is a Boston-based writer and photographer. He is a founding member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project and and on the editorial collective of Dollars & Sense Magazine. His blog is hungryblues.net and he is @minorjive on Twitter.