Seated on the stage of a packed room at Washington, D.C.'s National Press Club on Thursday night, Recy Taylor smiled softly as the audience stood and applauded her. Dressed in a royal purple skirt suit, her gray hair curled neatly behind her ears, the 91-year-old appeared slightly overwhelmed by the attention. When a young woman standing to her left announced to her that she is "worthy of the love and admiration that every single person in this room has for you," Taylor began to weep.
"I never lived in a way that nobody cared about my feelings," she told The Root in an interview, explaining why the moment touched such a chord. "I never lived that kind of life, but I always wanted it. Now I believe that a lot of people care about me, and that makes me feel good."
Taylor had traveled to Washington from her central Florida home for "Reintroducing Rosa," a program examining the role of Rosa Parks and other black women in the civil rights movement — women who fought not only against racial discrimination but also for the right to their own bodies amid pervasive sexual violence in the Jim Crow South. Four young Washington women — Erika M. West, Jessica McCall, Angela Baker and Heather Joy Thompson — produced the event after reading Danielle McGuire's At the Dark End of the Street, which chronicles Rosa Parks' courageous anti-rape activism and the story of Recy Taylor, who spoke out when she was assaulted six decades ago.
McGuire, who also attended the event, detailed how the abduction and rape of black women by white men happened with terrifying regularity. "But this is the thing — black women didn't always keep their stories secret," she said. "In fact … black women reclaimed their humanity by testifying about their assaults, and their testimonies often led to larger campaigns for civil and human rights."
Taylor is one of those women. Her 1944 abduction and rape case, at the hands of seven white men in rural Abbeville, Ala., was taken up by a young Rosa Parks. The brutal attack of Taylor, then a 24-year-old wife and mother, sparked a national movement for justice, but an all-white jury refused to bring an indictment. An investigation by the governor's office produced admissions of guilt from the assailants, but without a county indictment or action by the local sheriff's office, the case eventually faded away.
Over the next 65 years, most of the nation moved on and forgot about what happened to Recy Taylor. But this year, in the course of three months — shortly after the publication of At the Dark End of the Street; media attention including a popular article in The Root last February; and a subsequent Change.org petition, which 20,000 people signed, demanding justice for Recy Taylor — word of her story rapidly spread.
In March, Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock apologized to Taylor's family for the town's failure to pursue the case. By April, both houses of the Alabama legislature had approved a resolution expressing "profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes" and characterizing the state's inaction as "morally abhorrent and repugnant" (pdf). A formal apology is all that Taylor had asked.
"I was proud to hear that they [apologized]. But I can't explain just how I feel right now," Taylor told The Root, stopping to mull it over a bit. "I find myself getting nervous talking about it too much because it gets me disturbed thinking about what happened. But I felt good over the apology."
Speaking to the audience about the Alabama resolution, McGuire summarized the mixed emotions, acknowledging that an apology is not exactly justice. "But it's an important step towards healing past wounds and recognizing Taylor's humanity — something the state had never done."