Recy Taylor was walking home from a church revival in Abbeville, Ala., when a green Chevrolet filled with white men pulled up.
She tried to run, but one of the men grabbed the 24-year-old mother and forced her into the sedan. She was driven into a grove of pine trees, where, one by one, six men brutally raped her, threatening to cut her throat if she cried out, according to state records.
There were no arrests, but Taylor’s rape made headlines across the country. The rape occurred on Sept. 3, 1944, and obtaining justice for a black woman in the segregated South was nearly impossible.
The case is featured in the new documentary, “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” Taylor died last Thursday at an Abbeville nursing home, her brother Robert Corbitt said, just before her 98th birthday.
The documentary also features a familiar civil rights hero: Rosa Parks. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People office in Montgomery found at what had happened to Taylor in Abbeville, the NAACP sent Parks to investigate. She was 31.
In Abbeville, Parks found Taylor at her home, a cabin on a sharecropper’s plantation. She took notes as Taylor described the assault.
After the men raped Taylor, they blindfolded her and left her on the side of a deserted road.
“After they messed over and did what they were going to do me, they say, ‘We’re going to take you back. We’re going to put you out. But if you tell it, we’re going to kill you,’ ” Taylor remembered in a 2011 interview with NPR’s Michel Martin.
At about 3 a.m., Taylor’s father, who had been out searching for her, saw his daughter staggering along the highway.
Recy Taylor’s friend, Fannie Daniel, who witnessed the abduction, had already reported the kidnapping to Will Cook, a former police chief who also owned a store. Taylor and her father reported the assault to the then-local county sheriff, Lewey Corbitt.
One of the assailants, Hugo Wilson, confessed to the rape and named six other men involved: Dillard York; Billy Howerton; Herbert Lovett; Luther Lee; Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble.
None of the men were arrested.
As Parks interviewed Taylor, Corbitt kept driving by the house, according to the book
The sheriff finally burst into Taylor’s house, demanding that Rosa Parks leave.
Parks returned to Montgomery, where she promptly launched the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. The committee flooded the South with fliers “decrying white attacks on black women,” according to the Chicago Defender.
The Chicago Defender printed a story with the headline, “Victim of White Alabama Rapists.” It ran above a now-famous photo of Taylor sitting on a sofa, dressed in a hat and checkered blazer with her daughter, Jayce, on her lap and her husband, Willie Guy Taylor, beside her.
The Defender’s staff correspondent, Fred Atwater, reported that the lawyer representing the suspects in the case had offered $600 to Willie Guy Taylor to silence his wife. “Nigger — ain’t $600 enough for raping your wife,” the story quoted the lawyer saying. The six defendants were willing to pay $100 each “if Recy Taylor would forget.”
On Oct. 9, 1944, a grand jury refused to indict the men. Outraged, Parks urged people to write protest letters to then-Alabama Gov. Chauncey Sparks. Hundreds of letters of outrage began pouring into the governor’s office.
Parks sent a letter of her own on Alabama Committee for Equal Justice letterhead to the governor:
“As a citizen of Alabama, I urge you to use your high office to reconvene the Henry County Grand Jury at the earliest possible moment,” Parks wrote. “Alabamians are depending upon you to see that all obstacles, which are preventing justice in this case, be removed. I know that you will not fail to let the people of Alabama know that there is equal justice for all of our citizens.”
In response, Sparks ordered another investigation of the rape. On Feb. 14, 1945, a Henry County grand jury refused to indict the suspects for a second time. The men were never prosecuted.
Before Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955, she led a national campaign against sexual assaults on black women. She was propelled by her own experience with sexual assault.
In an autobiographical sketch contained in her personal papers, Parks described how a white male neighbor had tried to rape her in 1931.
“He offered me a drink of whiskey, which I promptly and vehemently refused,” Parks wrote. “He moved nearer to me and put his hand on my waist. I was very frightened by now.”
Parks died in 2005, and never lived to see Alabama lawmakers apologize to Taylor for how the state handled her rape case. In 2011, they issued this resolution: