Still no justice for civil rights-era rape victims
ATLANTA (AP) — Years before Rosa Parks fought for justice from her seat on a Montgomery bus, she fought for Recy Taylor.
Parks was an NAACP activist crisscrossing Alabama in 1944 when she came across the case of Taylor, a 24-year-old wife and mother who was brutally gang raped and dumped on the side of a rural road. Taylor survived only to watch two all-white, all-male grand juries decline to indict the six white men who admitted to authorities that they assaulted her.
Taylor was one of many black women attacked by white men during an era in which sexual assault was used to informally enforce Jim Crow segregation. Their pain galvanized an anti-rape crusade that ultimately took a back seat to the push to dismantle officially sanctioned separation of the races, and slowly faded from the headlines.
Many of these rape victims never got justice and the desire for closure is still there, more than 60 years later — leaving some to wonder what, if anything, can be done to address the wrongs done to them.
“I didn’t get nothing, ain’t nothing been done about it,” Taylor, now 90, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her central Florida home. The AP is revealing Taylor’s identity because she has publicly identified herself as a victim of sexual assault.
“I was an honest person and living right,” Taylor said. “They shouldn’t have did that. I never give them no reason to do it.”
For 20 years after she was raped, Taylor and her family lived in the same Abbeville, Ala., community as the families of her attackers. She spent many years living in fear, and says local whites continued to treat her badly, even after her assailants left town.
Evelyn Lowery, an activist whose husband, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, worked with Martin Luther King Jr., suggested that an apology from the government could be a start to the healing.
“I certainly think it would be in order,” Evelyn Lowery said. “For many years, they tried to say that women were the cause of this, that (black) women wanted sexual activity. … It hasn’t been true, but the courts used that to justify not taking action on behalf of the women. It was very demoralizing to all of us.”
Taylor is not inclined to pursue a civil case. She believes most, if not all, of her attackers are dead. But she does find the idea of an official apology appealing.
“It would mean a whole lot to me,” Taylor said. “The people who done this to me … they can’t do no apologizing. Most of them is gone.”
Danielle McGuire, a history professor at Wayne State University who has documented the women’s advocacy and Taylor’s story in a new book, cites numerous instances of black women enduring unwanted sexual encounters from white men in cities in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Arkansas. Adding to the indignity, McGuire said, was the knowledge that black men — many of them innocent — were accused of and severely punished for the same or lesser crimes against white women. In some cases, they paid with their lives.
“It tells us that there’s more to the movement than we think we know,” McGuire said. “When we listen to the voices of these women, we get a whole new perspective.”
For Taylor’s brother, Robert Corbitt, a small measure of justice came courtesy of McGuire’s book, “At The Dark End of the Street,” which he said finally provided an accurate account of what happened to his sister, who helped raise him after his mother died.
“I still don’t like what happened,” said Corbitt, now 74. “This happened 65, 66 years ago. It has never been a week that went by where it didn’t cross my mind.”
When he retired in 2001 and moved from New York back to Abbeville, Corbitt tried to get court documents about his sister’s case. He said he was stonewalled by officials at the local courthouse.
“They made it seem it was impossible to go back and pull them up,” Corbitt said. “It made me feel terrible that she was still being railroaded.”
It’s unclear what closure may be available today for black women who were raped in the segregated South. In some states, like Alabama, there is no statute of limitations on rape. McGuire figures “you could make a case for reopening something” if there are living assailants and evidence that can be gathered.
“An enterprising attorney could find a way to use that at least in a civil case,” McGuire said.
The Justice Department is not looking into civil rights-era sexual assault cases and lacks jurisdiction to do so, said spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. She notes that the Emmett Till Act, which created an office to investigate unsolved civil rights-era crimes, is specifically limited to race-motivated killings only.
Parks came to Abbeville in 1944 to investigate Taylor’s case. She went back to Montgomery, recruited other activists and by the spring of 1945 had organized the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Local blacks rallied around Taylor even though they knew convictions of her attackers were unlikely, Corbitt said.
“We done all we could to make a little noise,” Corbitt said. “We felt that we was getting back at them some way or another. We thought maybe we’ll be able to expose these people to the community and at least that they’ll be looking upon them as rapists.”
Eventually, even Taylor herself gave up. In 1965, she and her family relocated to central Florida.
“I felt like if I tried to push it, to try to get them put in jail, I thought maybe it would be bad on me, so I just left town,” Taylor said.
Other blacks, typically women, wrote letters to their governors and other lawmakers demanding justice for these victims. They also expanded their advocacy to take aim at segregated public accommodations.
By the time Parks made history in 1955, hundreds of black women had begun organizing their resistance to the name-calling and inappropriate sexual advances to which they were subjected daily aboard Montgomery’s city buses. A high school student, Claudette Colvin, had refused to yield a bus seat before Parks did, but did not become a cause celebre partly because she lacked Parks’ pristine image and community standing.
Though the public face of the movement became a coalition of black ministers led by King, black women worked behind the scenes organizing and driving carpools, filling church pews and raising funds to keep the 13-month boycott going, McGuire wrote.
Andrew Young, a King lieutenant, said there were no simple answers to determining why the anti-rape cause didn’t become a larger aim of the movement.
“We never focused on that,” Young said. “We were focusing on the specific subjects of education, jobs, voting. … I can think of a thousand things we did not do that I would have liked to have done.”
Corbitt said he holds no ill will toward civil rights activists who moved on to other causes after Taylor’s case failed in the courts.
“Most of them had to give up because I guess they were at the end of the line,” Corbitt said. “Rosa Parks, she done all she could do.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.