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Meet Recy Taylor, the civil rights hero the Congressional Black Caucus is celebrating

Recy Taylor’s story as a civil rights hero speaks to the intersection of black civil rights and feminist causes.

After more than 70 years, her story is still being told.

Recy Taylor, an early civil rights hero who died in December, will be commemorated by members of the Congressional Black Caucus donning red pins with her name during Tuesday’s State of the Union. Taylor’s granddaughter, Mary Joyce Owens, will also attend the State of the Union as a guest for Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL).

Previously, Taylor got a shout-out from Oprah Winfrey at 2018’s Golden Globes — as Winfrey became the first black woman to accept the Cecil B. DeMille award.

“Recy Taylor: a name I know and I think you should know too,” Winfrey said. “In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP — where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice.

“But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died 10 days ago — just shy of her 98th birthday. 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 dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.”

As Winfrey said, Taylor never got justice. Two all-white, all-male grand juries refused to indict the men who attacked and raped her, even though one of them confessed, according to the New York Times. The case never went to trial, and the seven men who abducted her (six of whom raped her) — Hugo Wilson, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Robert Gamble, Joe Culpepper, and Dillard York — never went to prison for their crimes.

The case drew headlines in the black press and, eventually, nationwide at the time. Taylor continued speaking out for the rest of her life — even as white vigilantes tried to silence her shortly after the rape, at one point setting fire to her porch.

The initial crime and its aftermath exposed an intersection of issues. First, there was a society and criminal justice system that treated white and black people differently — an issue that remains a problem today, as black people are still policed and locked up at greater rates, while violent crimes in black communities are more likely to go unsolved. Second, there was a society and justice system that was largely indifferent to violence committed against women — another issue that is now getting far more attention as more women speak out against sexual harassment and assault as part of the #MeToo movement.

These two issues came together during the Jim Crow era, Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote for the Undefeated in December, for “a decades-long reign of white sexual terror” against black women. As historian Danielle McGuire explained in her 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, “Between 1940 and 1965, only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly.”

“Taylor’s rape was not an exceptional occurrence. It was part of a continuous campaign of terror that was just as much a threat to women as lynching was to black men,” McDonald wrote in the Undefeated. “The history of black women as victims of white terror has largely been ignored, silenced and minimized, even as their quest for safety fueled their pursuit of civil rights as far back as the 1890s.”

Taylor’s story shows how long these issues have persisted. She lived to nearly 100 — and for more than 70 years after six white men brutally attacked and raped her, she never saw justice. (The Alabama legislature offered an official apology to Taylor in 2011 for failing to prosecute the men who attacked her.)

Taylor’s case got renewed attention recently due to her death and the film, The Rape of Recy Taylor, which debuted in North America last year. It was also featured in McGuire’s 2010 book.

“Many ladies got raped,” Taylor said in the movie. “The peoples there — they seemed like they wasn’t concerned about what happened to me, and they didn’t try and do nothing about it. I can’t help but tell the truth of what they done to me.”

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