“They told her they wouldn’t kill her if she didn’t tell nobody. She told everybody.”
Mere minutes after fighting for her life against the six white teenagers who repeatedly raped and brutalized her, twenty-four-year-old Recy Taylor began the fight for her story.
The eyes of her brother Robert Corbitt lit up as he spoke of his sister’s defiance in the 2017 documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor.
Intentionally obscured from Alabamian historical records, Taylor was one of few Black women brave enough to share their account of the horrific sexual violence that Black women were systemically subjected to in the Jim Crow south. The documentary presents her as not just a survivor but a woman who lost her mother and stepped up to raise her siblings (as a child Corbitt referred to her as his ‘sister mother’), a hard worker, and a devoted Christian who even in the darkest times of her life never lost her faith.
The small theater fell silent at a New York screening hosted by the Duke Black Alumni Association as her crestfallen voice told the sickening details of the atrocities Taylor faced on the worst night of her life. “I cried and I cried but they wouldn’t let me go.” Despite there being several witnesses to the Taylor’s abduction, and a semi-successful attempt by Rosa Parks and the NAACP to pressure authorities into giving the case a second grand jury hearing, none of the rapists were ever officially arrested.
Dr. Treva Lindsey, an Associate Professor at Ohio State University and African American Women’s History expert, who moderated the post-screening panel said,
“I’m so inspired by a film that centers on the story of a Black woman, a Black woman who was survivor of such a brutal crime. That we are having a conversation both in the moment of Black Lives Matter and of Me Too where we can see how pervasive violence against Black women has been in this nation’s history and how far we still have to go highlights both that history and gives us some hope about how we can move forward in terms of addressing this violence against Black women.”
Members of the Duke Black Alumni Association peppered the panelists who included Corbitt in addition to the film’s director Nancy Buirski and producers Beth Semans with questions about their commitment to telling Taylor’s story.
President of the Duke Black Alumni Association Danielle Squire noted the importance of having spaces in which stories like Taylor’s could be discussed. She explained, “This event embodies a lot of what we try to do.” Encouraging “education and fellowship” is major priorities of the organization which receives significant support from its namesake. “We experience things together as a community differently than we would in a different setting” said Squire. Adding, “I think Duke University understands the need for common experiences.”
The courage Recy Taylor showed in naming her assailants was rewarded with the hatred in which the acts themselves were conducted. Her brother explained how people in the town tried to make good on their promise, revealing, “It happened on a Saturday. That Monday they fired bombed the house.”
The boys who assaulted Taylor further victimized her by attempting to malign her character in the public record by insinuating that she was a “jezebel” and a “whore” who had willingly engaged in intercourse with each of the six of them. A 1945 newspaper article quotes one of the assailants as having asked Taylor’s husband and the father of the daughter she pleaded to be allowed to see again as she was repeatedly violated, “Nigger-aint $600 enough for having raped your wife?”
Seen for generations as nothing more than a receptacle for a white boy’s rite of passage the Black female body has never been given the deference and consideration of its White counterpart. This perspective led to Black women being raped in fields, behind sheds, and in the houses where they worked by predators who believed them to be subhuman and incapable of denying consent in 1944 and long after.
Lindsey explained that “they had put in their mind that she was someone that consented to this which is so dangerous to think about, that Black women aren’t ever seen as true victims of these kinds of violent acts.”
Lindsey also pointed out that while she “thinks it’s important that the media continue to share our stories,” what she is “always leery of is our interest in trying to humanize Black people as though Black folks aren’t already human.” She added that “It’s important to think about the inhumanity of the perpetrators and not so much the inhumanity of [the victims]. They don’t think that there’s any harm you can do to a Black woman’s body.”
As Yale University’s Dr. Crystal Feimster said on screen, “I get systemic racism. I get that. But where’s the humanity?”
While Taylor’s brother was adamant that “you could never get away with that kind of stuff today,” women like Chikesia Clemons, whose breasts were exposed by police officers who leered at and threatened her in an Alabama Waffle house this April, might beg to differ.
The contributions of Black women to past resistance efforts are highlighted in the film through the lens of Taylor’s story but Corbitt spoke about his admiration to their commitment to current resistance as well. “You still have black women that don’t mind putting up a fight which is very good we’re gonna get there.”
Prior to exhaustive efforts to uncover documents that outlined the facts of the rape case, including finding torn up newspaper pages in the former sheriff’s basement, Corbitt stated that when he visited the state of Alabama in search of justice for his sister “The only thing they had about Recy Taylor was her birth certificate and her marriage certificate.”
Today the story of the life of the recently deceased Taylor and the resilience that life fostered can be found everywhere from Barnes and Noble to the Golden Globes stage but it’s the long overdue apology from the state of Alabama for the mishandling of her case that means the most to her and her family.
After the panel her brother made it clear that was unwilling to take sole credit for his efforts to make sure she secured a formal resolution expressing “deepest sympathy and deepest regrets” from the Alabama State Senate in 2011. “Everybody knew what I was after. Recy had asked me to do that,” he said “constantly.”