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Recy Taylor and the Courage of Testimony

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Recy Taylor died yesterday at the age of 97.

Taylor, a black Alabama sharecropper, was gang-raped by six white men in 1944. White men sexually assaulting black women with impunity was a particularly cruel feature of Jim Crow’s power dynamics, and Taylor was one of countless black women who suffered such trauma. As did many other black women, Taylor refused to stay silent about what the men had done to her. She bore witness against her attackers — a choice that required unspeakable courage in a social context that demanded black silence and submission, especially from black women.

After her rape, an investigator for the Alabama NAACP by the name of Rosa Parks (11 years before she became famous for sitting on that bus) traveled to visit Taylor and seek justice for her and her family. Parks helped establish the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor, which was an important nationwide antecedent for later civil rights actions.

Like many other people in many other social movements, Taylor deserves to be a household name in America, but largely isn’t. I research, write, and study black history for a living, and I had never heard of Recy Taylor until historian Danielle McGuire published her stunning, paradigm-shifting 2010 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. That book recovered stories like Recy Taylor’s from the silences of the archives, and transformed how many of us in the field have thought about the animating grievances and organizing principles of the movement.

I don’t have much else to say about Recy Taylor that McGuire hasn’t already said better, so I will leave you with a suggestion to read her book, as well as with this snippet on the significance of black women’s testimony against their abusers in the long, long struggle against racial and sexual oppression:

The rape of black women by white men continued, often unpunished, throughout the Jim Crow era. As Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow arose, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity. White men lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work, or church; raped them as a form of retribution or to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy; sexually humiliated and assaulted them on streetcars and buses, in taxicabs and trains, and in other public spaces. As the acclaimed freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “A black woman’s body was never hers alone.”

Black women did not keep their stories secret. African- American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults. They launched the first public attacks on sexual violence as a “systemic abuse of women” in response to slavery and the wave of lynchings in the post-Emancipation South. Slave narratives offer stark testimony about the brutal sexual exploitation bondswomen faced. For example, Harriet Jacobs detailed her master’s lechery in her autobiography to “arouse the women of the North” and “convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is.” When African- American clubwomen began to organize antilynching campaigns during the late nineteenth century, they testified about decades of sexual abuse. On October 5, 1892, hundreds of black women converged on Lyric Hall in New York City to hear Ida B. Wells’s thunderous voice. While black men were being accused of ravishing white women, she argued, “The rape of helpless Negro girls, which began in slavery days, still continues without reproof from church, state or press.“ At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Fannie Barrier Williams told an audience of black and white clubwomen about the “shameful fact that I am constantly in receipt of letters from the still unprotected women of the South. . . .” Anna Julia Cooper, a Washington, D.C., educator, author, and respected clubwoman, echoed Williams’s testimony. Black women, she told the crowd, were engaged in a “painful, patient, and silent toil . . . to gain title to the bodies of their daughters.”

Throughout the twentieth century, black women persisted in telling their stories, frequently cited in local and national NAACP reports. Their testimonies spilled out in letters to the Justice Department and appeared on the front pages of the nation’s leading black newspapers. Black women regularly denounced their sexual misuse. By deploying their voices as weapons in the wars against white supremacy, whether in the church, the courtroom, or in congressional hearings, African- American women loudly resisted what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “thingification” of their humanity. Decades before radical feminists in the women’s movement urged rape survivors to “speak out,” African-American women’s public protests galvanized local, national, and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. When Recy Taylor spoke out against her assailants and Rosa Parks and her allies in Montgomery mobilized in defense of her womanhood in 1944, they joined this tradition of testimony and protest.

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