A cautionary tale: 'The Rape of Recy Taylor'

A photograph of civil rights organizers featured in the movie  "The Rape of Recy Taylor." Credit:  Tamiment Library / Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives / New York University

When people wonder why it takes some women so long to come forward with their accounts of having been victims of sexual violence, the name Recy Taylor comes to mind. When one considers the courage it takes even now to name perpetrators — Hollywood moguls, state legislators, teachers — again the name Recy Taylor comes to mind.

Nearly seven decades after she was gang raped by a group of young white men, Recy Taylor regained some attention with the publication of Danielle McGuire’s 2010 book, “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance.” The story gained even more attention when Oprah Winfrey mentioned Taylor while accepting an award in Hollywood in January. In the midst of the #MeToo reckoning, Ms. Winfrey recognized “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.” And then she told Recy Taylor’s story, sending the curious into online research overdrive.


Since shortly before Taylor died three days shy of 98 on Dec. 28, thousands of people have seen that story depicted in a new documentary, “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” Planned Parenthood of Maryland hosted a screening at the Charles Theater in Baltimore earlier this month, as did the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Other screenings are being held around the country. The documentary will have its television premiere on the Starz cable network in July.

Back in 1944, when Taylor, a 24-year-old wife and mother, was walking home from church one night in Abbeville, Ala., a gang of white males snatched her away from her companions and took turns raping her in nearby woods. Though threatened with death if she said anything, she reported the incident to the sheriff that very night. She also alerted the NAACP, which sent out an investigator named Rosa Parks — the same woman who a decade later famously refused to give up a seat to whites on a Montgomery bus, touching off a new phase of the civil rights movement.


Despite international condemnation and even a confession from one of the men, no one was ever charged. The Taylor home was firebombed; and she was branded a whore.

The Recy Taylor story shines a light on what many women, especially black women in the South, suffered in silence from the days of slavery, when white men developed a sense of entitlement. Sometimes the men in their lives — husbands, brothers, sons — turned a blind eye when white predators showed up. Elders warned their girls, as one of my schoolmates recalled, to steer clear of certain white men who came into black communities selling a variety of merchandise and who were known to have roving eyes and “free hands.” In the 1960s, many young women arrested during sit-ins and protest marches were assaulted by their jailers.

The message handed down through the ages, and succinctly explained by Recy Taylor’s brother Robert Corbitt, was this: “The black woman’s body didn’t belong to her.”

In rural Georgia in 1946, when Roger Malcolm decided he’d had enough of a white farmer — his boss — having his way with Malcom’s wife Dorothy, he stabbed the man during a fight. That set off a chain of events that led to this nation’s last known mass lynching: The Malcoms, Dorothy’s brother George, not long returned from World War II military service in the South Pacific, and George’s wife Mae were tied to trees in Walton County, Ga., and methodically shot to death by a white mob. That, too, led to protests across the country and international condemnation, but no one was ever charged.

Resistance comes with a price even to this day. Sometimes the torture of silence is easier to bear.

Recalling Recy Taylor, Ms. Winfrey said: “She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

That is mere wishful thinking, however, until predators alter their ways and until the women who do come forth are given the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many years it takes them to find their voices.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: