Recy Taylor’s bold testimony in defense of her bodily integrity in 1944 will reach a new audience because of Nancy Buirski’s new documentary film, The Rape of Recy Taylor. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It will have it’s North America premier at the New York Film Festival on October 1. Here’s a link to a recent essay from the Root that highlights this film and all the different people and organizations who paid tribute to Taylor’s courage and tenacity and who have fought for her right (and all women’s rights, especially women of color) to human dignity and bodily integrity.
I wrote about Recy Taylor’s story for my doctoral dissertation, which I finished in 2007. It became the foundational narrative of my 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 (Knopf), which was published in 2010.
Here’s the gist of what I discovered in my research.
In 1944, in Abbeville, Alabama, an African American woman named Recy Taylor walked home from a church revival. A car full of white men kidnapped her off the street, drove her to the woods and gang raped her at gunpoint.
Then they dropped her off in the middle of town and told her they would kill her if she told anyone what happened.
But that night, she told her husband, father and the local sheriff about the brutal assault.
A few days later the Montgomery NAACP called to say they were sending their very best investigator.
Her name…was Rosa Parks.
Rosa Parks carried Taylor’s story back to Montgomery where she and the city’s most militant activists organized the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor and launched a national protest movement that the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice in a decade.”
11 years later this group of homegrown activists would become better known as the Montgomery Improvement Association, vaunting its president, Martin Luther King Jr., to international prominence and launching a movement that would help change the world. But when the coalition first took root, King was still in high school.
The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement was in many ways, one of the last acts of a decades-long struggle to protect black women, like Recy Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.
The kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor was not unusual in the segregated South. From slavery through the better part of the 20th century, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity and often impunity. They lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages. They attacked them on the job, abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work or church; and sexually humiliated and assaulted them on buses and streetcars and in other public spaces.
This was the pattern throughout the Jim Crow era and it underscored the limits of southern “justice.”
But black women did not always keep their stories secret.
From the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs to Ida B. Wells to Fannie Lou Hamer’s stark testimony about a forced hysterectomy and sexualized beating in Mississippi in 1963, black women reclaimed their humanity by organizing public protests and testifying about their brutal assaults. These testimonies often led to larger campaigns for civil and human rights.
In fact, even the most oft-told and illustrious civil rights struggles—like the Montgomery bus boycott, the Selma struggle, and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer–frequently have an unexamined history of gendered political appeals to protect black women from sexual violence.