Recy Taylor hadn’t asked for much. More than six decades after she was raped by six white men in her hometown of Abbeville, Alabama – a horrific crime that the sheriff’s department covered up, never to speak of again – she wasn’t interested in reopening the case or pressing charges. Taylor, now 91 years old, just thought an apology was in order.
On Tuesday the Alabama House finally acted. By a unanimous voice vote, the body passed a resolution apologizing for the state’s failure to pursue justice for Taylor, who was a 24-year-old sharecropper in 1944 when she was kidnapped and raped at gunpoint. An all-white jury in Jim Crow-era Alabama refused to indict her assailants. A subsequent investigation initiated by the governor's office elicited some admissions of guilt, but without an indictment in the county in which the crime took place, the case couldn't go forward.
Expressing “deepest sympathies and solemn regrets,” the resolution called the state’s response “morally abhorrent and repugnant.” It now moves to the Senate. The resolution comes a week after Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock and Henry County Probate Judge JoAnn Smith held a press conference apologizing to Taylor’s family for the way she was treated. The influx of attention has came as a bit of a shock.
“I couldn’t believe it happened so fast,” Taylor’s 74-year-old brother, Robert Corbitt, who lives in Abbeville, told The Root. After working tirelessly for years, to no avail, for government officials to even recognize that the crime happened, he says he’s grateful for the recent surge of activity.
“Sometimes Recy’s not fully aware of what’s going on, and she has her good days and bad days,” he said. “But when I told her about the resolution last night she was very happy. At first she thought it had gone completely through, but I told her, ‘No, next it has to go through the Senate.’ But I’m very confident.”
Last month The Root wrote about Recy Taylor’s brutal assault, which sparked a Rosa Parks-led justice movement in the 1940s before all but disappearing from history over the years. Word of her story continued to spread through a Change.org petition calling on government officials to issue apologies for Taylor.
But the case was first pushed back into the spotlight by historian Danielle McGuire, who featured Taylor in her 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. McGuire and Taylor will both attend a Washington, D.C. event this May at the National Press Club, “Reintroducing Rosa,” examining the role that black women fighting sexual violence played throughout the civil rights movement.
“This couldn’t have happened without Danielle McGuire, The Root, Change.org and Colorlines. Your articles really put a lot of pressure on the officials,” said Corbitt, adding that days after The Root piece he started getting phone calls from people all across the country. “They were amazed by the story they’d read, and some of the calls were from people right here in Abbeville who never knew what happened. Most of them were white, and they felt so badly and wanted to apologize.”
Corbitt says that while the Alabama House resolution doesn’t give the family a full measure of justice, the regrets issued by the government mean a great deal to them.
“It means that we have some closure,” he said. “What hurt Recy maybe more than anything was the lies that were told on her. These men admitted that they kidnapped and raped her, but law enforcement said it didn’t happen. Not only that, they tried to say she was a prostitute when she was a Christian lady. Things like that really bothered her, so she’s gotten some closure in the apology.”
Just having the story acknowledged at all carries a huge weight. With the county courthouse swept clean of records on Taylor’s assault, Corbitt donated a copy of McGuire’s book to the local library when it came out last fall.
“Now the library has bought another copy, but the books are never there because they’re checked out all the time,” he said proudly. “People know all about it now.”
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.