Recy Taylor's Truth

A Q&A with historian Danielle McGuire about the life of the black woman whose campaign for justice after a rape by six white men was instrumental to the civil-rights movement—and to the #MeToo movement today.

Susan Walsh / AP

Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday garnered headlines for catapulting the media mogul into the ranks of possible presidential candidates, but it was perhaps most remarkable for a moment in which she reframed the #MeToo moment and challenged even some people in the room who stood with her in solidarity. In a call to arms against sexual violence and for gender equality, Winfrey invoked the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama, who—in 1944, at the height of Jim Crow—was kidnapped and raped by six white men.

As Oprah told the audience: “Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

Just who was Recy Taylor, and what was the movement for justice for her like? To help answer those questions, I spoke to historian Danielle L. McGuire, whose scholarship and 2011 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 helped retrieve Taylor’s case from the obscurity, spurred the creation of a 2017 documentary, and helped finally move the Alabama state legislature to formally apologize to Taylor in 2011. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vann R. Newkirk II: How did you find out about the incredible story of Recy Taylor?

Danielle L. McGuire: I was a graduate student doing research on racialized sexual violence, and my research question was: If we know that enslaved women were used for their productive and reproductive labor—if they were raped with impunity in the system of slavery—then what happened after Emancipation? Did those practices and the institutions that upheld those practices—the men and their sons and their cousins—end those practices just because of Emancipation? I wondered what happened afterwards. Of course, black women’s literature is full of stories about black women’s vulnerability not only during slavery, but during Reconstruction and on throughout the 20th century. I saw it a lot in the 1990s, when I was a student, in black women’s literature. But there was no civil-rights history book about it, and I just wondered ‘Did this happen in the civil-rights era?’

So I started looking for cases, which were hard to find because marginalized people are hard to find in the archives. Their stories are not remembered, they’re not saved, and they’re not considered worthy of being archived so often. Those stories were hard to find, but the black press actually printed a lot of black women’s testimonies about sexual violence at the time. What would happen is that I would find stories in black newspapers and then trace them to the courthouse or to the archive where I might find something. In Recy Taylor’s case, there was a sentence in a pamphlet that I found. It was a pamphlet by the Civil Rights Congress, a leftist group in the 1950s, and they petitioned the United Nations arguing that the United States had committed genocide against African Americans. And this pamphlet was a compendium of crimes that had been committed against African Americans. Mostly lynching, and other kinds of racial terror, that were directed against men.

But there was one line that stood out for me, and it was just a little sentence, that said something like ‘the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor petitioned Governor Chauncey Sparks of Alabama for justice in her rape case.’ And I thought, ‘OK, now we’re getting somewhere.’ Because the governor keeps papers, and they archive the governor’s papers, so maybe those petitions are in there. Let me go find out. So I went to the Alabama State Archives and called up Chauncey Sparks’s papers, and he had four boxes on Recy Taylor’s case.

Newkirk: Why was the governor so interested in this case?

McGuire: In that box was the governor’s private investigation into what happened. He started getting all these petitions and postcards and wanted to know what was going on. He was afraid that he was going to have another Scottsboro crisis on his hands, and that the state would be ridiculed around the world again. He didn’t want that to happen. So he sent two private investigators to Abbeville and they interviewed the assailants who all admitted to having sex with Recy Taylor. Most of them said they paid or that she consented, but at least one of them corroborated Recy’s story that she was kidnapped and held at gunpoint against her will. And the governor’s investigators documented how the county covered up the crime, lied about arresting the men, and had a fake grand-jury hearing. It was just incredible to find that. Mississippi disappeared a lot of their stuff, and so has Alabama, frankly, so it was just incredible to find that. And then in the other boxes were just thousands of petitions and postcards. I looked at all of them and read all the names and I started to notice names that I was familiar with from Selma, from Birmingham, and from Montgomery. When I got through looking at all of them I could map communities where people were signing the postcards and Rosa Parks’s neighbors were a lot of the people who signed the postcards, and her signature was there. It was really incredible.

Newkirk: Having met and spent time with her, what’s your sense of how Recy Taylor fought all this, and how she processed what happened to her? Did she see herself as an activist?

McGuire: No. She was not an activist. After she was assaulted, she immediately told what happened. She told her father, her husband, the sheriff, and then she went home. And then the family was terrorized, and her house was firebombed. And she, her husband, and toddler, had to move in with her father. Her father had to sit up all night protecting the house with his Winchester rifle. She couldn’t go into town after dark. Neither could her sisters. They were really limited and terrified. For a time the NAACP moved her to Montgomery for her safety, but she wasn’t comfortable there and moved back home … She had siblings to care for, and she had her own child to care for, and she had a life to lead, and so—like women everywhere—she just kept living her life. She was not an activist, but her bold testimony at the time is remarkable, then and now.

Newkirk: In Jim Crow Alabama, at that.

McGuire: Right. If someone threatens to kill you in Alabama in 1944, that’s real. There’s no consequences for that. The threat is very real. Her speaking out was just incredibly brave. And when I asked her in 2009 why she spoke out—why did she say anything, wasn’t she scared?—and she looked me right in the eye and said ‘I just didn’t think that I deserved what they did to me.’ I just thought that she had an incredible sense of self-worth and dignity.

Newkirk: One of the things that caught my eye reading your work is the role of Rosa Parks, and how she shows up as almost this superhuman figure. She’s an investigator; she’s leading the charge for Taylor. Did you have an inkling of these aspects of Rosa Parks before you started your work?

McGuire: I had no idea. I was raised to believe, like too many people are today, that Rosa Parks was a tired old lady who tiptoed into history. Because she had an ‘emotional response’ to her exhaustion and it changed the world. But, in 1998 I was working on my master’s thesis, and I listened to an NPR story about Montgomery Bus Boycott veterans. The editor of The Montgomery Advertiser, Joe Azbell, was talking about the boycott and he said that Gertrude Perkins had never been mentioned in history, but she was the most important in the boycott. It took my breath away, and I didn’t know who that was.

So I went looking in microfilm for the newspaper, and I found her story. She was a black woman who was kidnapped by the police in Montgomery and raped. She went and told her minister what happened afterwards and they went down to the police station to try and identify her assailants. Of course, police didn’t hold any lineups or anything, but the community rallied to her defense.

I still didn’t get how that had anything to do with the bus boycott. It didn't make any sense to me in 1998. But when I was working on Recy Taylor’s case in the Alabama archives and I started to see all of those archives of people who were involved in the bus boycotts who were rallying to defend Recy Taylor 11 years earlier, and when I saw Rosa Parks’s signature on those postcards and multiple petitions, I started to get a sense of what Azbell meant. When I looked further, what I saw was that there were all these rape cases and assaults that rallied black community members and activists in Montgomery to the defense of black women that led up to the bus boycott and created the organizational infrastructure that was then called on for that boycott.

It was after my book was published that Rosa Parks’s family documents were released to the public and I found out that she wrote an essay in the 1950s about being attacked by a white man as she was a domestic worker during the Great Depression. I knew that she worked on the Scottsboro case, and so all of the sudden you think, wait a second, Rosa Parks is involved in all of these cases leading up to the bus boycott. So not only is she way more exciting and radical than I every knew and most people knew at the time, but she wasn’t just involved in stories and cases that were looking to get access to public accommodations or voting. She did that. But she also looked at these intersectional issues of racial and sexual violence, particularly rape.

Newkirk: One interesting thing about Parks’s story is that it shows that the campaign against sexual violence and rape was not just ancillary to the civil-rights movement. It was the movement.

McGuire: Yeah, and when you really think about it, what’s more important than being able to move freely through the world without being attacked, touched inappropriately, or assailed? These were the things that people complained about the most, especially women. So yeah, people wanted the right to vote. They needed that, because you couldn’t get justice in the courts without it. If you think rape is central to it, then the importance of the vote gets a new layer, because you see that by being able to vote, you can vote in new judges, and you can vote in new sheriffs that change the narrative and allow people to get justice for these kinds of assaults.

Newkirk: Are there any parallels that we can draw from this concerted, well-organized campaign against sexual violence with the modern moment? Especially with how this is playing out with domestic workers, low-income women of color, and those who don’t necessarily feel connected to what’s happening in Hollywood?

McGuire: Definitely. I think that where we see those stories of the most marginal women come from the people around them, but they never make it to mainstream press. They never get the kind of platform that I think on some level Oprah gave to the issue on Sunday. But the key parallels for me when I think about it are that the most marginalized women among us are still the most vulnerable to sexual violence, and they are the least likely to get any kind of justice.

So, in Michigan for example there was a woman who in 2008 was kidnapped and raped, and she went immediately afterwards to police and reported it and got a rape kit, and they sat on her case and didn’t do anything about it for years until a DNA kit finally matched her assailant with a whole lot of rapes around the country. But a jury in Michigan couldn’t see her as a person worthy of justice, I think, because she was black, she was working-class, and she had drug-dependency issues, and they didn’t think her life mattered enough to see her humanity and to see her as a victim of this brutal assault, in the same way that those Henry County jurors couldn’t see Recy Taylor’s humanity.

Newkirk: Your work is in covering things that seemed to be relatively common knowledge at the time, but have been buried a bit by history and have taken a backseat to high-profile killings and lynchings—generally of men. Do you think there’s anything you’ve encountered to suggest that the reason why this critical aspect of the civil-rights movement has been neglected is because it deals with women?

McGuire: You hit it right on the head. Number one, when most people think about the civil-rights movement, they do not think about sexual violence or bodily integrity, even though I think it’s central to humanity. People know that women were leaders, but people don't want to talk about sexual violence. We’re having this #MeToo moment and this kind of reckoning, but people don’t want to talk about the actual violence and what it does to a person after. And the way that trauma can tear apart people’s lives and their families. That is a painful thing that people want to turn away from. We already want to turn away from our country’s racist history; we don’t want to look. And we especially don’t want to talk about this aspect of it. But if we don’t, we can’t understand the whole truth, and we can’t get past the kind of both racist and sexist systems that continue to oppress people. I think it’s really important that we, like Recy Taylor did, speak boldly and truthfully about the horrors of the past so that we can make a better future.