Recy Taylor: A Symbol of Jim Crow’s Forgotten Horror

After her brutal gang rape, Recy Taylor became a global symbol of American injustice and helped inspire the civil rights movement. So why has nobody heard of her today?

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Two days later, he remembers, someone threw a firebomb at the home of Taylor, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter. “After that, they moved in with us,” said Corbitt. “At night, my father would sit in a tree and guard the house with a shotgun.”

The following month, in a farce of a grand jury trial at which none of the assailants even showed up, an all-white, all-male jury elected not to indict.

The family didn’t know it back then, but Parks, dispatched by the Montgomery NAACP to investigate the case, was setting the gears in motion for a far-reaching campaign. “Miss Parks told me to go with her to Montgomery until things were clear,” said Taylor, who stayed for three months in a rooming house, arranged for by Parks, before returning home. “She was trying to get something done. I’m not sure what. I was young and didn’t know nothing about law and stuff like that.”

Parks saw an opportunity to hold up Taylor’s story as a national example of Southern injustice. She partnered with other progressive groups — including the now mostly forgotten Southern Negro Youth Congress, the defense team of the Scottsboro Boys, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other labor organizers, as well as communist networks — to form the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. The coalition became a national movement that the Chicago Defender called “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade,” and daily stories on the case were printed in newspapers across the nation, from Baltimore to Los Angeles.

But not in the tiny town of Abbeville, where Taylor’s family was largely unaware of the proceedings. Corbitt had quite a shock, years later, as a soldier stationed in Germany. “A German guy asked me where I was from, and when I told him Alabama, he started to tell a story he knew about that happened there,” he said. “He was talking about my sister.”

Danielle McGuire, an assistant professor of history at Wayne State University and author of the recently published book At the Dark End of the Street, documenting Taylor’s story as well as others from the civil rights era, says that the broader goal of the Committee for Equal Justice was to quash the legacy of Jim Crow. “They used the horror of her story to highlight the hypocrisy of the United States — at war around the world for democracy, and yet there was no democracy at home,” McGuire told The Root. “They might have not seen Recy Taylor as sophisticated enough to be a spokesperson for the campaign, so a lot of this was organized without the family’s knowledge.”

The effort included a massive letter-writing campaign to Alabama Gov. Chauncey Sparks in order to shame the state into bringing Taylor’s abductors to trial. Worried about the impact on Alabama’s reputation, Sparks arranged an investigation and even got admission statements from the assailants. “He and the attorney general believed the guys were guilty, and they were ready to do something,” explained McGuire. The only problem  was that in Alabama law, a criminal case can’t proceed without an indictment in the county where the crime happened.