Several decades before a virtual tidal wave of sexual assault revelations flooded the national media and brought down numerous sexually deviant and priapic powerful men, the brutal gang rape in 1944 of Mrs. Recy Taylor a young black woman in rural Alabama became one of the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. A grotesquely brutal incident that quickly became a whispered legend.
The vicious and violent attack struck terror in black communities and was spoken about in hushed tones for years. But children were often innocent observers, absorbing their parents’ cautious fears. Recalling my own Southern girlhood growing up in pre-civil rights era Montgomery, Alabama, it occurs to me that I was a chronic eavesdropper. In those early formative years, I was an intensely curious and inquisitive child, almost by necessity because my parents and all of the adults in my large extended family abided by the “children should be seen and not heard” rule, and my three older siblings obediently complied. So, although my persistent questions went unanswered, I soon devised other methods of acquiring forbidden information.
Like many other loving and devoted parents living in the South under racial oppression, my mother and father were determined to shield and protect their five children and keep any form of harm from befalling them. Guarded secrets spoken in hushed tones around our house were frequent and welcomed to my receptive young ears. Even though whispers of violent incidents and the imminent dangers in surrounding communities often resulted in sleepless nights, my inquisitions continued.
“Lord. What that poor woman went through.”
“It’s just a shame.”
“And they said she was just walking home from church with some friends.”
“And none of them men is even being charged.”
“It’s just a low down dirty shame.”
“And every one of them men are going straight to Hell.”
As a child hearing these comments from adults in my world, I was not yet equipped with adequate language skills to contextualize the meaning. But I sensed that something close to death had occurred to the woman they were speaking about. But many years later, I was to hear the complete story and learn the horrific details, due to the extraordinary courage of two Alabama women. One, the victim and unsung heroine. The other a local NAACP activist who went on to become a reluctant civil rights icon.
On the night of September 3, 1944, Mrs. Recy Taylor, a young Negro wife and mother was walking home from church with two friends along a darkened dirt road. Soon, a carload of six white men approached them threateningly and forced Recy’s friends to leave the scene before kidnapping her at gunpoint, blindfolding her and shoving her into the back seat of their car. These men took turns brutally raping and torturing her for several hours, before dumping her on the side of the dirt road, where she was later found nearly unconscious, and rescued, by her distraught father.
After physically recovering from the brutal attack, and with the loving support of her family, Mrs. Taylor reported the brutal crime to local authorities and identified the perpetrators. She also spoke out courageously in her community. And in spite of persistent death threats from the white rapists and intimidation by their marauding supporters, she refused to cower or back down.
Shortly thereafter, her case was brought to the attention of the local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery, which sprang into action immediately. After gathering all the facts, they dispatched their female investigator to Abbeville to interview Mrs. Taylor. A little-known historical fact is that the investigator was Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Mrs. Parks and my mother were life-long friends from the years they were classmates at Miss White’s School for Girls. And they maintained and often reminisced about the “personal pride and deportment and dignity” that was instilled in them as students, under Miss White’s tutelage. And anyone with knowledge of Mrs. Parks’ personal history and upbringing is well aware that it was her fierce advocacy on behalf of Recy Taylor that actually launched her on her political journey. Not that famous incident on that segregated city bus in Montgomery. (SEE: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis).
Mrs. Parks took the written transcript of Mrs. Taylor’s testimony back to the NAACP office in Montgomery, where she and other local activists organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.” They reached out to black newspapers across the country, including the Chicago Defender, launching what the paper referred to as “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” In 1948, Mrs. Parks openly criticized President Harry Truman’s civil rights initiatives at the NAACP convention, saying: “No one should feel proud when Negroes every day are being molested.”
As mentioned in the book, “At the Dark End of the Street,” by Danielle McGuire which chronicles black women raped during the Jim Crow Era, Parks pressed people to write letters to then-Alabama governor Chauncey Sparks, and that action led to a second investigation. However, Mrs. Taylor’s attackers were never charged, even though one of them confessed to the crime. And they actually approached her husband and offered $600 “for her to forget” the brutal gang rape. But Taylor refused to accept the hush money and Mrs. Parks and a host of other women community organizers in Montgomery continued to move forward with the case.
This was the “#Me Too” moment of the Civil Rights Movement.
67 years after the crime, in 2011, the Alabama legislature issued a so-called “apology” to Mrs. Taylor “…for its failure to prosecute her attackers.” And in the 2017 documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor, Mrs. Taylor, well into her 90s by then, recalls and describes the brutal assault with chilling clarity. On December 28, 2017, she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 97.
The actual true origins of the #Me Too movement could be found in the history of the black women in Jim Crow south. But discounting enslaved women, few have had the courage and resilience demonstrated by Mrs. Recy Taylor in 1944. It now falls to the group of women who duplicated social activist Tarana Burke’s Me Too Movement and fashioned it into a new Feminist social media hashtag to acknowledge and learn from that history.