On Dec. 8, Nancy Buirsky's documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor hit theaters, and finally, an incredible but largely forgotten Black woman is getting her story heard. Back in 1944 Alabama, Recy Taylor was raped and brutally injured by a group of White men, after they grabbed the 24-year-old mother of one, blindfolded her, forced her into their car, and drove her into a grove of trees. Yet despite admitting to the crimes, the men were never convicted, and the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to look into the investigation and jury trial. The horrific situation ultimately added fire major fire to the Civil Rights Movement, but most people have never heard of Taylor and the case. Now, though, her name will be known thanks to the new doc, which unpacks the abuse of Black women and tells the many overlooked stories like Taylor's that have shaped civil rights history.
The doc, which is based on Danielle McGuire's 2010 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, recounts how a day after her rape, Taylor, her father, and her husband reported it to the Abbeville sheriff's office. Yet little action was taken by law enforcement. Her perpetrators and the case was sent to a grand jury — twice— but Taylor’s attackers were never indicted. And although Hugo Wilson, the driver of the Chevy and one of the attackers, confessed to raping Taylor and named the other men involved, none of them were arrested. To tell this awful story, the doc includes personal testimonies given by a now 97-year-old Taylor, as well as her younger siblings, Robert Corbitt and Alma Daniels, who recount the horrors of their sister's case. Additional views about Abbeville's past are provided by historians, scholars, and authors who speak about the suffering that continues to this day for Black people in Alabama.
Back in 1944, Taylor's decision to speak up and go to court after her rape was courageous, but dangerous. While her brave choice would help lead to major strides for Black women, it also created more threats for Black life. Both Taylor and her family’s homes came under a series of attacks after the reports, and they suffered intense discrimination and hate. At the time, women of color who spoke up about assault were called liars, with deadly threats frequently made against their lives, as the doc recounts. Some Whites, at the time, used mob violence, lynching, molotov cocktails and law enforcement terror to keep Blacks silent. Black women were deemed socially, economically, and morally inferior, and some white men felt empowered to sexually assault them without consequences.
But Taylor still spoke up, and her case gained notice. In November 1944, the NAACP, alongside Parks, national labor unions, and women’s groups, launched the Committee for Equal Justice to bring Taylor's case to national attention. International attention pressured segregationist Gov. Chauncey Sparks to launch an investigation, but the Abbeville's sheriff office and the perpetrators lied to investigators with claims that Taylor was "a paid and widely known prostitute." The efforts made by the Committee, though, created fuel for the civil rights movement in such ways that the '40s saw a mass mobilization of Black women speaking against sexual violence and racism. As mentioned in the documentary, Parks' activism on behalf of Taylor established community networks that became the basis for movements like the Montgomery bus boycott, which occurred a decade later.
What is so baffling, though, is the lack of discussion about Taylor's story in current American history. We hear about stories of prominent Black women who fought against injustice like Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Coretta Scott King and Sojourner Truth, but women like Taylor, Gertrude Perkins, Bessie Creech, Betty Jean Owens, or Flossie Hardman, all of whom were raped by White men who weren't convicted, are hardly known — despite some of their cases driving the Civil Rights movement and the fight for Black women's equality.
And this history of systematic abuse of Black women at the hands of White men goes as far back as slavery. As Bowdoin reports, White masters were often noted for raping and degrading Black female slaves, and the mentality of ownership over Black women's bodies carried over into the brutal Jim Crow era. Of course, many Black women today know about this history, but specific stories like Taylor's should be widely noted by all women across the world. It was because of the willingness of Black women such as Taylor to speak out about the horrific things that happened to them that women today can stand up and fight for their own justice.
It's still upsetting, though, that seven decades later, there has been very little justice for Taylor herself. In 2011 the Alabama Legislature finally offered a formal apology to Taylor about her case from 1944 stating, "we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant." Although that may not seem like much, in some way the new documentary, out digitally and VOD on Mar. 27, is a form of justice, too. Audiences learning about Taylor's case can begin discussions about the way Black women's sexual assault cases are handled, and the progress (or lack thereof) that's been made overall.
Taylor, and the countless Black women in history like her, are examples of courage that we can all learn from. Like so many women who are speaking up today about sexual assault and harassment as part of the #MeToo movement, Taylor's story addresses the risks Black women faced throughout history for speaking up, despite the great danger in doing so. The Rape of Recy Taylor is a powerful and effective reminder that silence does not create justice, and that we can all take a lesson from Taylor's bravery.