Recy Taylor, Sexual Violence, and the Horrors of Jim Crow

The stories of countless black women who were raped by white men during the civil rights era have gone overlooked entirely.

By Jamilah King Feb 11, 2011

Cynthia Gordy over at The Root caught up with 91-year-old Recy Taylor, who’s still fighting for justice nearly seven decades after her brutal gang rape brought international attention to America’s civil rights struggle. It’s a horrifying, but powerful story. Gordy writes:

Wielding knives and guns, seven white men get out of the car, according to Taylor and witnesses from a state investigation of the case. One shoves Taylor in the backseat; the rest squeeze in after her and ride off. Her panicked friends run to tell the sheriff.

After parking in a deserted grove of pecan trees, the men order the young wife and mother out at gunpoint, shouting at her to undress. Six of them rape Taylor that night. Once finished, they drive her back to the road, ordering her out again before roaring off into the darkness. Days after the brutal attack, Taylor’s story traveled through word of mouth, catching the attention of a Montgomery NAACP activist named Rosa Parks. A seasoned anti-rape crusader, who focused on the sexual assaults of black women that were commonplace in the segregated South, Parks would eventually help bring the case international notice.

Despite her efforts, however, in Jim Crow-era Alabama, Taylor’s assailants were never punished.

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.

… "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."

The case eventually drew more attention abroad than it did in the states. And as Gordy points out, while some civil rights-era crimes have gotten noticeable attention lately thanks in large part to the Cold Case Project, the sexual violence of that era- and the decades that preceded it–has received considerably fewer headlines. The legacy of that massive oversight can be seen in everything from how the federal government defines rape to the staggering amounts of misinformation black women receive about sex–and the people who prey on them.