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.