Last month, the State of Alabama officially apologized for the lack of justice granted to a survivor of rape during the Jim Crow era. Recy Taylor, the survivor, was 24 years old when the assault happened in 1944. She was kidnapped at gun-and-knifepoint by a group of white men in a car, and then raped by six of them before being thrown back on the street.
The assailants openly admitted to their crime, but because the victim was black and the attackers were white men of economic privilege, the white police officers refused to take Taylor’s side. When the case was brought to trial, the all-white, all-male jury found the rapists innocent, though none of the attackers even showed up to testify.
In history books and mainstream media, the Jim Crow era sexual assault is rarely brought up. Most curriculum focuses on voting rights, segregation, and violence committed against those who resisted, and the plethora of other human rights abuses that happened in this country during that era.
However, white men raping black women in the United States has been far too common, since the times of chattel slavery. There has been far too little vocalization of the problem or justice felt by survivors.
Though many historians and writers cite the crime as common, there were zero convictions of southern white men for rape or attempted rape of black women between 1865 and the mid 1960s according to David Pilgrim, a sociology professor at Ferris State University.
Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists originally took up the case, but gained little momentum in the wake of other injustices committed during that era. To gain perspective, two days after the rape, the house of Mrs. Taylor and her family was firebombed.
So 66 years later, Recy Taylor and her family picked up the case again, and despite the pain of the tragedy, they successfully campaigned for an apology from the state of Alabama for the injustice they facilitated and amplified.
An apology like this hardly makes up for the damage done to Mrs. Taylor, her family and their community, but it is an important step in the right direction. Because of how common this crime was, this apology could open up the door for others who also suffered, and help to build of a broader anti-racism, anti-rape movement.
The case is important still, because rape is hardly a problem of the past. Almost one in five women in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted in her life, and African American women are still assaulted at a higher rate than the overall population. Additionally, it is estimated that only 40 percent of sexual assaults are reported at all.
There is still so much to be done to end sexual assault in this country and in the world, but Recy Taylor is a hero for fighting for justice, no mater how long it took.