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How Recy Taylor Spoke Out Against Her Rape, Decades Before #MeToo

Jan 8, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 9:54 am

During her walk home from church one evening in 1944 in Abbeville, Ala., Recy Taylor was forcefully taken into the woods by six white men and then raped multiple times.

Afterward the men took her back to town, but threatened to kill her if she told anyone what happened.

But Taylor's story was shared, and when people at the NAACP heard about it they sent out an activist, Rosa Parks, to investigate.

Despite the rapists being identified, and at least one man's confession to the crimes, none were ever punished.

Taylor died on Dec. 28, 2017, at 97 in Abbeville, three days before her 98th birthday.

When talking with NPR's Michel Martin in 2011, Taylor said that afterward, she didn't leave her house at night because she was afraid that "maybe something else might happen."

"I hated it happened to me like that, but it just happened to me and I couldn't help myself," Taylor said. "The peoples there, it seemed like they wasn't concerned about what happened to me. They didn't try to do nothing about it. I just get upset because I do my best to be nice to people because I don't want people to mistreat me and do me any kind of way. And I have to live with it, 'cause I had to live with a lot with going through with this."

Taylor received a formal apology from the state of Alabama nearly 60 years later, in 2011, after historian Danielle McGuire published a 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.

The apology, McGuire says, is all Taylor really wanted.

"I know for her that that meant a whole lot. It wasn't justice — it wasn't her assailants being convicted of a horrible crime and going to jail. But it meant something," McGuire told All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro. "For the first time the governor of Alabama had to say her name and had to be honest about the way in which the state tried to bury her story, refused to investigate it, refused to listen to her. So it was a kind of reckoning — it was powerful."

McGuire first met Taylor in 2009, when she visited Taylor's brother's house and they watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama together.

"We were in her brother's living room in Abbeville, Ala., and we were watching the inauguration on this little black-and-white television," McGuire says. "I turned to Recy, and I said, 'Did you ever think that an African-American woman would become first lady?' and she looked at me and said, 'Not in my lifetime.' "

McGuire spent a lot of time with Taylor. When Taylor died, McGuire wrote on Twitter that "[Recy Taylor's] resistance to rape helped spark the civil rights movement and her testimony against her assailants helped lay the foundation for the women's movement."

McGuire also said that in today's post-Harvey Weinstein world, where Hollywood's "Time's Up" initiative commanded attention at this year's Golden Globes, women can say #MeToo because Taylor said it years earlier.

"Decades before the women's movement, decades before there were speak-outs or anyone saying 'me too,' Recy Taylor testified about her assault to people who could very easily have killed her — who tried to kill her," McGuire says. "If she could do that then, with all of that risk and terror surrounding her, then we all need to stand up and say — when we have to — me too."

Though McGuire talked with Taylor about the darkest parts of Taylor's life, she still got to see her as a person.

"She was funny, witty. She was a churchgoer. She loved going to church, she loved to sing. She was very welcoming to me, always willing to speak with me," McGuire says. "Her whole family was just incredibly gracious."

Matt Ozug produced and Renita Jablonski edited this piece for on-air.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to talk about one moment from last night's Golden Globe Awards. In a speech where Oprah Winfrey had audience members cheering and crying, the media mogul told the story of a woman named Recy Taylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF 75TH ANNUAL GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS)

OPRAH WINFREY: In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from a church service she had attended in Abbeville, Ala., when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone. But her story was reported to the NAACP, where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case. And together, they sought justice.

SHAPIRO: Here's Recy Taylor speaking with NPR's Michel Martin in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RECY TAYLOR: They got me in the car and carried me straight through the wood. But before they got where they was going, they blindfolded me. After they messed over and did what they were going to do me, say, we're going to take you back. We're going to put you out. But if you tell it, we're going to kill you.

SHAPIRO: Recy Taylor died just two weeks ago at the age of 97. We're going to remember her with the historian Danielle McGuire, who spent a lot of time with her over the last decade. Welcome.

DANIELLE MCGUIRE: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You first met Recy Taylor on President Obama's inauguration day in 2008. Tell us about that meeting.

MCGUIRE: It was remarkable. It was this incredible moment. We were in her brother's living room in Abbeville, Ala. And we were watching the inauguration on this little black-and-white television. And I turned to Recy and I said, did you ever think that an African-American woman would become first lady? And she looked at me and she said, not in my lifetime. And growing up in the Jim Crow South, you know, black women weren't even considered ladies. And here we were, you know, standing side by side, watching Michelle Obama, you know, with her husband taking the oath of office. It was just the past and the present sort of converging at this moment.

SHAPIRO: Recy Taylor's rapists were never brought to trial, even though one of them confessed to the crime. And in 2011, after you published a book about her, the Alabama Legislature issued a formal apology. What did she think of people finally believing her and listening to her after all these decades?

MCGUIRE: I think it was really incredible. You know, that apology came about because of an organic online petition after Recy Taylor told a journalist that all she really wanted was an apology, and so I know for her that that meant a whole lot. It wasn't justice. It wasn't her assailants being convicted of a horrible crime and going to jail. But it meant something. For the first time, you know, the governor of Alabama had to say her name and had to be honest about the way in which the state, you know, tried to bury her story, refused to investigate it, refused to listen to her. And so it was a kind of reckoning. It was powerful.

SHAPIRO: On the day that she died, you wrote on Twitter that Recy Taylor laid the foundation for the women's movement and the #MeToo movement. What did you mean by that?

MCGUIRE: What I meant was that decades before the women's movement, decades before there were speak-outs or anyone saying me, too, Recy Taylor testified about her assault to people who could very easily have killed her, who tried to kill her. And if she could do that then with all of that risk and terror surrounding her, then we all need to stand up and say when we have to me, too.

SHAPIRO: She is primarily identified with this one traumatic experience she suffered in her youth. But she lived to be close to a hundred.

MCGUIRE: That's right.

SHAPIRO: What was she like as a person as you got to know her over the years?

MCGUIRE: She was funny, witty. She was a churchgoer. She loved going to church. She loved to sing. She was very welcoming to me, always willing to speak with me. Her whole family was just incredibly gracious. I've really - I've never met people like that who would just welcome a stranger into their homes and tell them their deepest, darkest histories and stories and carry on with them for years and years. So I feel very grateful to have met her and her family.

SHAPIRO: Her story has not been one of the more well-known civil rights struggles. Do you think it deserves to be?

MCGUIRE: Absolutely. I think that her story really in many ways is the foundation of the Montgomery bus boycott, which is primarily a women's movement for bodily integrity. The buses were spaces of violence, and the women who mobilized to be free on the buses were women who had experienced assault and harassment there.

I think that her story is one of many stories within the civil rights movement that are rooted in resistance by black women for bodily integrity, and that if we look at every single story in the civil rights movement - Montgomery, Selma, freedom summer, Birmingham - they're all rooted in this kind of resistance to sexual violence. We just need to look more carefully.

SHAPIRO: Historian Danielle McGuire's book is called "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." She's remembering Recy Taylor, who died last month, three days before her 98th birthday. Thanks for joining us.

MCGUIRE: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous Web version, we say historian Danielle McGuire met Recy Taylor on President Barack Obama's Inauguration Day in 2008. The correct year is 2009.]

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF CORMACK'S "RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.