Recy Taylor: The Backstory of the Woman Who Inspired Oprah's Golden Globes Speech

The historian who rediscovered the activist's story explains why it's an important symbol for the #MeToo movement, why it went untold for so long and what Taylor thought of her recent fame.
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images; Susan Walsh/AP Photo
Oprah, Recy Taylor

When Oprah Winfrey spoke about rape survivor and civil rights activist Recy Taylor while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes on Sunday, few knew who she was talking about. One person who not only knew more about Taylor than almost anyone alive, but was also cheering the belated recognition was Danielle McGuire, the historian who rediscovered Taylor’s story and brought it to public attention in her award-winning book, At the Dark End of the Street.

McGuire talked with The Hollywood Reporter about Taylor’s story, her friendship with the activist who died Dec. 28 at age 97, and what the Alabama native thought of the attention that came to her in the last few years of her life, including an apology from the state of Alabama for failing to prosecute her rape.

Tell me about who Recy Taylor really was. 

Recy Taylor was an ordinary woman with an extraordinary history. She was a mother and a wife and a sharecropper in Abbeville, Ala. On Sept. 3, 1944, she was walking home from church when she was kidnapped and gang-raped by a group of white men. They threatened to kill her if she told anyone what had happened. She begged them to let her go home to her baby and her husband. The story got to Montgomery and the NAACP and they sent their very best investigator, and that was Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks came to hear what happened to Taylor, and carried her story back to Montgomery to launch what the Chicago Defender called the largest campaign for equal justice to be seen in decades. African Americans used the opportunity of World War II and the infrastructure of black activism at that time to send Taylor’s story all across the country and by the spring of 1945, thousands and thousands of petitions came pouring into the Alabama governor’s office demanding a trial for her assailants and demanding justice. Despite the outpouring of support and a confession from one of the rapists, two grand juries failed to indict the men and the crime went unpunished.

Why is her story so important? 

It shows us a few things: One is that it helps us see the vulnerability black women and girls felt during the segregated South. When we think about racial violence, we often think about what happened to black men and we focus on lynching or violence against men. We tend to lose sight of racialized and sexualized violence forced upon women. So her story illuminates that struggle of the era. It also shows us that Recy Taylor was willing to speak out, before the personal was political, before women took back the night, before Hollywood actresses said “me too.” She did it at a time where she could’ve been killed.

And another thing, it revealed is Rosa Parks as an activist. She was the secretary of the NAACP at the time. We tend to think of her as someone who took notes and answered the phone. But she wasn’t just that. She traveled all over Alabama taking people’s testimonies, investigating crimes against African Americans, looking into instances of arson or lynching or fire bombings. So she was more of a detective. Rosa Parks' father was from Abbeville and she knew people there so it made sense for her to go there to talk to Recy. So we see a lot of different things, we see the building blocks of the Civil Rights Movement, and it all comes through this story of an ordinary woman who had to endure this horrific event.

We think of Rosa Parks’ career as an activist beginning with her protest on the bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, as a spontaneous act and none of that’s really accurate, right?

Yes, that’s true. I think what the story tells us is that it has its own history, and that history is rooted in the defense of black womanhood and black women's organized protest against sexual violence and rape. Researching this story about Recy Taylor led me to all these other cases in Montgomery in the decades before the bus boycott. Black women who were assaulted by bus drivers, police officers and employers. Women were forced to take the bus and were abused on it and then abused by their employers. The decade before the bus boycott, you see a string of cases that the black community, including Rosa Parks and others, pursued in order to bring justice to these cases. So when Rosa Parks sat down on Dec. 1, 1955, she knew that there was a community around her who were mobilized around the issue of protecting women’s bodies from these types of spaces. Buses were spaces of violence, and black women were the majority riders. Recy Taylor’s story intersects with and provides context for the history for the bus boycott.

Despite being a huge cause celebre in the 1940s, Taylor’s story had become mostly forgotten by the early 2000s. How did that happen?

I don’t think sexual violence and rape were considered civil rights issues by civil rights historians who were writing in the 1980s and the 1990s, and I don’t think a lot reporters in the late 1950s thought of rape as a civil rights issue. And part of that I think is that the organized movement didn’t focus on it, and yet what is more important than being able to move through the world not being assaulted. If you can’t walk on a city street or sit in a bus without being attacked then sitting at a restaurant counter [isn’t much]. I think the first draft of history and then the historiography that came after it did not consider rape a civil rights issue. I don’t think they were thinking intersectionality. So I think that when you move the lens a little bit, when you look at women's experiences and what they were concerned about — of course they were concerned with voter rights and equal accommodations — but they’re also concerned about protecting their bodies because they are so vulnerable in that world where there is no protection, legal or otherwise.

How did you rediscover Taylor’s story?

I was interested in looking at the legacy of rape during slavery, I wanted to know if after the end of slavery if the practices of sexual violence and rape continued. I was searching for black women’s stories of sexual violence and I found a pamphlet from the Civil Rights Congress, which as you know was a leftist, communist organization. They put this pamphlet together called We Charge Genocide and they presented it to the United Nations. It was essentially a laundry list of crimes committed against African Americans. But there was one little sentence, a tiny little line at the bottom of a page in the middle of the pamphlet that said something about the committee for equal justice for Recy Taylor, and how the committee had petitioned the governor and I thought, “That’s really interesting, who is that?” I went looking. 

You also got to know Taylor pretty well personally. What was she like?

She was fun-loving and witty. She loved to sing. She loved going to church. She loved her family. She has an extensive family of grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She was very welcoming to me and gracious. She was unassuming. She didn’t seek fame. She didn't try to seek the spotlight. I think she was very quiet, but she seemed to be a woman of the movement. I’m so glad i got to meet her. I went to her funeral on Friday, and that was very moving. John Lewis presented a proclamation that they presented at her funeral.

After your book came out, her story got renewed attention, which included an apology from the Alabama legislature. What did Taylor think of all the attention?

I think the apology meant a lot to her and her family because they knew how much the state had tired to dismiss her, to silence her, to not hear her story, to cover it up. That was really meaningful. She said that that was one of the only things she ever wanted was an apology and she got that. It was really important to her. It’s not justice, but it’s a step toward restorative justice and that’s meaningful. I think they’re glad to have her history told, and to have the courage to be recognized by people all around the globe.

What did you think about Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes?

I couldn’t believe it, absolutely unbelievable. When I started this, it was nothing. And to see the research and the little details and weaving together the threads and crafting a narrative from those threads, to see that displayed by Oprah to the people was astounding.

Is there a lesson for the #MeToo movement in Recy Taylor’s story?

I think her story is important because it is inspirational and should give us all the courage we need to speak out against this stuff. If she can do it, we can do it. Two, Recy Taylor was a working-class African-American woman. She was a sharecropper, that made her vulnerable in lots of different ways. It made her marginal in a lot of different ways. The lesson of Recy Taylor’s story is that we need to pay attention to and listen to the vulnerable and marginalized people. We can’t just listen to actresses and Olympic athletes when they say “me too” because there are so many other marginalized women who when they say, “me too,” we all say, “no not you.” So that’s really important. We need to remember who she was. Marginalized women are the most vulnerable to this type of violence.