Say her name: Recy Taylor. In 1944, 24-year-old Recy Taylor and two friends were walking back from a late-night church service in Abbeville, Ala., when seven young white men in a car stopped them and threatened them with a gun. Taylor was forced to enter the car, and the men drove off with her into the woods.
At least six of those men raped her (one claimed that he did not) and then dropped her off on the side of the road. She walked home and told her father what happened.
Taylor, married and a new mother, spoke out against her perpetrators, and the case was sent to a grand jury—twice. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks investigated the rape as part of her early work with the NAACP. Black newspapers in Northern states followed the case and helped to organize activism and protest within the black community. But even after two grand juries, Taylor’s attackers were never even indicted.
Despite the immediate impact of her case, an academic book about her and even a recent apology to her by the state of Alabama, few people today can recall Taylor’s name or tell her story. But the makers of a new documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor, are seeking to change that.
Taylor never received the proper legal justice she deserved and wanted, but this documentary may bless her with something even greater: widespread recognition as one of several black women whose testimonies and activism in the ’40s paved the way for the civil rights movement.
“They don’t tell you this history,” said Farah Tanis, co-founder and co-executive director of the Black Women’s Blueprint, an organization that honored Taylor with the Museum of Women’s Resistance Award last year. “Black women’s bodies were used as battlegrounds in the Jim Crow areas. We need to hear Recy Taylor’s story.”
Taylor, now 97, lives in a nursing home in Abbeville, Ala., and is not well enough to attend the film’s screening, but her brother, Robert Corbitt, 81, will be there.
“For a long time, in the beginning, we didn’t get any justice at all,” said Corbitt, who attended the film’s debut in Venice, Italy. “It was my longtime journey to get justice for my sister.”
Through in-depth interviews with Taylor’s relatives, academics and Abbeville locals, the film tells the personal and social impact of Taylor’s rape. It also zeroes in on the work of Parks, who investigated Taylor’s case in 1944 and formed the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Parks was a successful civil rights activist long before the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott for which she became famous in 1955.
To evoke the time period of Taylor’s rape, film director Nancy Buirski uses scenes from early-20th-century “race films.” These films, produced for black audiences with entirely black casts, often included storylines of black women being accosted by white men.
“It’s not a typical documentary approach. You don’t have footage,” said Buirski, who also directed The Loving Story in 2012. “I feel strongly that it is critical for people to be able to take away the feeling of what took place.”
Taylor’s rape by white men wasn’t rare. While many African-American men suffered lynching after being wrongly accused of raping white women, the sexual abuse of black women by white men went unpunished. Like Recy Taylor, many of these women spoke up, only to realize that justice was unlikely.
This reality has served as the foundation for Danielle McGuire’s academic work. After the furor surrounding Taylor’s rape died down, her case was forgotten by many and even deleted from most Alabama records. McGuire’s academic research helped unearth those records, and in 2011, she published the 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 more I read about these women, the more I thought black women testimonies paved the way for crucial civil rights cases,” said McGuire, who served as a consultant for the documentary. “Black women testified about sexual violence way before white women did.”
McGuire’s book prompted the Black Women’s Blueprint to reach out to Recy Taylor and honor her. In the last year and a half, Farah Tanis and members have visited Taylor four times, the last time on Jan. 1, her 97th birthday. Taylor’s story is also included in the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault.The truth commission includes stories of rape survivors starting from 1944.
While McGuire conducted her research, Taylor’s family continued to seek justice for Taylor. This mainly fell onto the shoulders of Taylor’s brother, Corbitt, who was only 9 years old in 1944.
But this was almost impossible because all records of Taylor’s case had been erased from local Abbeville libraries and courthouses. He reached out to McGuire in 2009 when he heard about her research. In 2011 the work of Corbitt, McGuire, countless journalists and internet activists paid off. The state of Alabama issued an official apology to Taylor.
“I pursued this justice because I was watching my sister hurt all these years,” said Corbitt, 81, who is a retired air conditioner technician. “For years, she would only talk about her experiences with me. She had to live in the same town as those people who did that to her.”
Corbitt says that McGuire’s work has been a blessing to his family.
“If it weren’t for her book, that movie wouldn’t have happened,” Corbitt said.
Editor’s note: This article has been revised to make the following corrections: There were seven men in the car when they abducted Recy Taylor, although at least six of those men did rape her; the accused were never put on trial; and two grand juries refused to indict the men involved.