2017 may well become known as the year of #MeToo. But the women standing up today are in fact part of a long history of activists fighting sexual harassment. And one of the activists more commonly associated with another movement was a key figure in early attempts to rectify sexual injustice: Rosa Parks.
Revered as a civil rights icon, Rosa Parks is best known for sparking the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, but her activism in the black community predates that day. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1943, 12 years before that fateful commute. In her first years in the organization, she worked specifically on criminal justice and its application in Alabama communities.
One part of this was protecting black men from false accusations and lynchings; the other was ensuring that black people who had been sexually assaulted by white people could get their day in court. This particular issue was close to Parks’ heart as in 1931 a white male neighbor had attempted to assault her.
Parks resisted and later said of the incident, “I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never.” That incident was on her mind when she traveled to Abbeville, Alabama, in the autumn of 1944 to deal with a disturbing case chronicled in the new movie The Rape of Recy Taylor.
It was the evening of Sunday, September 3 and 24-year-old sharecropper Recy Taylor was walking home from church with her friend Fannie Daniel. A car carrying seven young white men approached Taylor and accused her of attacking a white boy in a nearby town. The men forced her into the car under the pretense of taking the married mother to see the sheriff. They did not. They blindfolded and gang-raped her, then threatened her with death if she reported the crime.
However, Recy Taylor did not keep quiet. After her father found her making her way home, she told him of her ordeal and then they went to the sheriff. Her friend, who had witnessed the abduction, also contacted the police.
According to Taylor, the sheriff drove her to a store after hearing her story, to see if they could find any of her rapists. In fact, he was able to find two of the young men. In a 2011 interview with NPR, Taylor recounted, “he asked the boys, was y’all with this lady tonight? And the white boys said, yeah. Mr. Louis told them to get in the car and he left. We didn’t have no other conversation said about the boys. He just left.”
Days later, news of the alleged assault reached the Montgomery offices of the NAACP and they responded by sending along an investigator, Rosa Parks.
In 1940s Alabama, segregationist laws and attitudes permeated every echelon of society. When Rosa Parks made her way to the Taylor home, she found the town’s sheriff there waiting for her.
He made sure to make his presence known by repeatedly driving past the house, eventually entering the home and demanding Parks leave under the pretense of not wanting “troublemakers” in town. Parks was undeterred and returned to Montgomery where she promptly launched the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor. The committee made sure the case received national attention and by October, it was headline news.
On October 9 of that year, a grand jury refused to indict the defendants. At the time, the Chicago Defender reported that the suspects’ lawyer offered $600 to Willie Guy Taylor, Recy’s husband, for his wife’s silence. Parks fired off a letter to the state’s governor asking him not to “fail to let the people of Alabama know that there is equal justice for all of our citizens.”
No charges were ever brought against the men. Taylor’s story, and Parks’ involvement in it, received renewed attention as a result of the book, At the Dark End of the Street, by Danielle L. McGuire, published in 2010. In 2011, the Alabama House of Representatives approved a resolution apologizing to Recy Taylor for what they characterized as the state’s “morally abhorrent and repugnant” failure to prosecute, nearly 70 years after the fact.
The Rape of Recy Taylor, released December 15, 2017, offers the 98-year-old Taylor what she was denied in the 1940s: the chance to tell her story.