Everyone is buzzing about Oprah Winfrey’s inspiring Golden Globes speech as the first black woman to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. And its subject, the late Recy Taylor, deserves much of the credit.
On Sunday, the A Wrinkle in Time star delivered the rousing speech to a sea of audience members wearing black, an act of solidarity to protest sexual harassment. The dress code was organized in the wake of the #MeToo movement, sparked by allegations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and other famous men targeted dozens of women.
Winfrey commended the media for its “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.”
“And there’s someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know too,” said Winfrey. “In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Ala., 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.”
She continued, “The men who tried to destroy her were never [prosecuted]. 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 dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”
Winfrey was referencing Time’s Up, a new Hollywood-backed initiative that established a multi-million-dollar legal defense fund to help underprivileged women to report sexual crimes.
In September 1944, Taylor was only 24 when she was kidnapped at knife- and gunpoint, gang-raped, blindfolded, and discarded on the side of the road by six white men while walking home with a friend and her 18-year-old son, West. Despite the men’s threats to kill Taylor if she reported them, the young mom did just that — an incredibly brave move in the “Jim Crow” era, a slang term to describe a period of time marked by racial segregation.
Jim Crow laws were established in the 1890s by Southern states that required black people to abide by humiliating and degrading rules, such as using separate water fountains and sitting in “colored” sections of restaurants, buses, and libraries. Black people were not allowed to vote, attend the same schools as whites, or — in some states — marry a person of another race.
So for Taylor, a black woman, to report a crime against herself and by a group of white men, to a justice system where black people often faced all-white juries, took an incredible amount of courage and fortitude.
According to the Congressional Record, no arrests were made, so the NAACP in Alabama took on Taylor’s case, assigning it to a woman named Rosa Parks, who more than a decade later would become a famous civil rights leader by getting arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus.
Parks organized the “Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor,” supported by fellow activists W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes, which prompted a second investigation — and a confession from one of the men — but no convictions.
In 2011, when Taylor was 91 and living in Florida, the state of Alabama issued an apology to her for neglecting her case, in response to publicity from the 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 by historian Danielle L. McGuire.
“Taylor’s younger brother — Robert Corbitt of Abbeville — said he remembers the day his sister was raped 67 years ago like it was yesterday, saying the police tried to blame his sister, and the family was harassed so that he was not allowed to play in the front yard,” according to the House Joint Resolution, which called the event a “deplorable lack of justice.” The document also read, “Be it further resolved, that we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”
“I never lived in a way that nobody cared about my feelings,” Taylor told The Root a few months later at a D.C. event called “Reintroducing Rosa”, which honored Parks for her work in Taylor’s case. “I never lived that kind of life, but I always wanted it. Now I believe that a lot of people care about me, and that makes me feel good.”
Of the apology, Taylor further told The Root, “I was proud to hear that they [apologized]. But I can’t explain just how I feel right now. I find myself getting nervous talking about it too much because it gets me disturbed, thinking about what happened. But I felt good over the apology.”
“I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on,” said Winfrey on Sunday. “It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’s heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it’s here with every woman who chooses to say, ‘Me too.’ And every man — every man who chooses to listen.”
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