Justice  /  Q&A

Recy Taylor's Truth

How one black woman's campaign for justice after a rape by six white men shaped the struggle for equality—and the #MeToo movement.
Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Vann R. Newkirk II: How did you find out about the incredible story of Recy Taylor?

Danielle L. McGuire: I was a graduate student doing research on racialized sexual violence, and my research question was: If we know that enslaved women were used for their productive and reproductive labor—if they were raped with impunity in the system of slavery—then what happened after Emancipation? Did those practices and the institutions that upheld those practices—the men and their sons and their cousins—end those practices just because of Emancipation? I wondered what happened afterwards. Of course, black women’s literature is full of stories about black women’s vulnerability not only during slavery, but during Reconstruction and on throughout the 20th century. I saw it a lot in the 1990s, when I was a student, in black women’s literature. But there was no civil-rights history book about it, and I just wondered ‘Did this happen in the civil-rights era?’

So I started looking for cases, which were hard to find because marginalized people are hard to find in the archives. Their stories are not remembered, they’re not saved, and they’re not considered worthy of being archived so often. Those stories were hard to find, but the black press actually printed a lot of black women’s testimonies about sexual violence at the time. What would happen is that I would find stories in black newspapers and then trace them to the courthouse or to the archive where I might find something. In Recy Taylor’s case, there was a sentence in a pamphlet that I found. It was a pamphlet by the Civil Rights Congress, a leftist group in the 1950s, and they petitioned the United Nations arguing that the United States had committed genocide against African Americans. And this pamphlet was a compendium of crimes that had been committed against African Americans. Mostly lynching, and other kinds of racial terror, that were directed against men.

But there was one line that stood out for me, and it was just a little sentence, that said something like ‘the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor petitioned Governor Chauncey Sparks of Alabama for justice in her rape case.’ And I thought, ‘OK, now we’re getting somewhere.’ Because the governor keeps papers, and they archive the governor’s papers, so maybe those petitions are in there. Let me go find out. So I went to the Alabama State Archives and called up Chauncey Sparks’s papers, and he had four boxes on Recy Taylor’s case.

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