Prologue – At the Dark End of the Street
On September 3, 1944, the Rock Hill Holiness Church, in Abbeville, Alabama, rocked late into the night. It was nearly midnight when the doors of the wooden, one-story church swung open releasing streams of worshippers, all African American, into the moonlight. After a night of singing and praying, Recy Taylor, Fannie Daniel and Daniel’s eighteen-year-old son, West, stepped out of the country chapel and strolled toward home alongside the peanut plantations that bounded the Abbeville-Headland highway. Taylor, a slender, copper-colored and beautiful twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, noticed a rattletrap green Chevrolet pass them at least three times, young white men gawking from its windows.
“You reckon what they are up to?” Taylor asked.
Taylor and Daniel, a stout sixty-one year old woman, watched the car creep by one last time and roll to a stop a few feet ahead of them. Seven men, armed with knives and guns, got out of the car and walked toward the women.
Herbert Lovett, the oldest of the crew at twenty-four and a private in the United States Army, shouted, “Halt!”
When they ignored the order, Lovett leveled his shotgun. West tugged at his mother’s sleeve, begging her to stop. “They might shoot you,” he whispered.
As the circle of men closed in, Lovett waved his gun at Taylor.
“We’re looking for this girl, right there. She’s the one that cut that white boy in Clopton this evening,” Lovett said, adding that local Sheriff George H. Gamble had dispatched the group to find the alleged assailant.
“You’re wrong,” Fannie insisted, “she’s been to my house all day.”
The men crowded closer, nodding their heads in agreement. “Ain’t this her?” Lovett asked.
“Yep, this the one,” Joe Culpepper said, “I know her by the clothes she got on.”
“That’s her,” Luther Lee agreed. “Get her!”
Lovett lurched toward Taylor and grabbed her arm. Then he turned to West and asked if Taylor was his wife.
“No,” West replied, “she’s Willie Guy Taylor’s wife.” Undeterred, Lovett extended his hand to the teenager, ordered him to shake it, and promised not to hurt Taylor.
“We’re going to take her up here and see if Mr. Gamble knows her,” Lovett claimed. “If she’s not the one, we’ll bring her right back.”
As Lovett spoke, Taylor managed to wrest her arm from his grasp and bolted toward a stand of trees behind a cabin.1
“Come back! Come back!” Fannie yelled. “They going to shoot you. Come back!”2
“Stop,” Lovett shouted. He cocked the gun at the back of her head. “I’ll kill you if you run.”
Lovett walked Taylor to the car and shoved her into the back seat. Three men piled in behind her, while four others squeezed into the front. The headlights switched off and the car crept away. After a few miles, the green sedan turned off the main highway, rattled down a red-clay tractor path into the woods and stopped in a grove of pecan trees. “Y’all aren’t carrying me to Mr. Gamble,” Taylor shouted. The men in the back seat clasped her wrists and ordered her to be quiet. Lovett grabbed his gun and waved Taylor and his companions out of the car.
“Get them rags off,” he barked, pointing the shotgun at her, “or I’ll kill you and leave you down here in the woods.”
Sobbing, Taylor pulled off her clothes.
“Please,” she cried, “let me go home to my husband and my baby.”
Lovett spread an old hunting coat on the ground, told his friends to strip down to their socks and undershirts, and ordered Taylor to lie down. Lovett passed his rifle to a friend and took off his pants. Hovering over the young mother, he snarled, “Act just like you do with your husband or I’ll cut your damn throat.”
Lovett was the first of six men to rape Taylor that night. When they finished, someone helped her get dressed, tied a handkerchief over her eyes, and shoved her back into the car. Back on the highway, the men stopped and ordered Taylor out of the car. “Don’t move until we get away from here,” one of them yelled. Taylor heard the car disappear into the night. She pulled off the blindfold, got her bearings, and began the long walk home.3
A few days later, a telephone rang at the NAACP branch office in Montgomery, Alabama. E. D. Nixon, the local president, promised to send his best investigator to Abbeville. That investigator would launch a movement that would ultimately change the world.
Her name was Rosa Parks.4
In later years, historians would paint Parks as a sweet and reticent old woman, whose tired feet caused her to defy Jim Crow on Montgomery’s city buses. Her solitary and spontaneous act, the story goes, sparked the 1955 bus boycott and gave birth to the civil rights movement. But Rosa Parks was a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an anti-rape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott. After meeting with Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice. With support from local people, she helped organize what the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” Eleven years later, this group of homegrown leaders would become better known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement, was in many ways, the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect black women, like Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.
The kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor was not unusual in the segregated South. The sexual exploitation of black women by white men had its roots in slavery, but continued, often unpunished, through the better part of the twentieth century. As Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow arose, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity. White men lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gun-point while traveling to or from home, work or church; raped them as a form of retribution or to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy; sexually humiliated and assaulted them on streetcars and buses, in taxi cabs and trains, and other public spaces.
Black women did not keep their stories secret.
African American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults… Their testimonies spilled out in letters to the Justice Department and appeared on the front pages of the nation’s leading black newspapers. Black women regularly denounced their sexual misuse. By deploying their voices as weapons in the wars against white supremacy, whether in the church, the courtroom, or in congressional hearings, African American women loudly resisted what Martin Luther King Jr., called the “thingification” of their humanity. Decades before radical feminists in the Women’s Movement urged rape survivors to “speak out,” African American women’s public protests galvanized local, national and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. When Recy Taylor spoke out against her assailants and Rosa Parks and her allies in Montgomery mobilized in defense of her womanhood in 1944, they joined this tradition of testimony and protest.
Montgomery, Alabama was not the only place in which attacks on black women fueled protests against white supremacy. Between 1940 and 1975, sexual violence and interracial rape became one crucial battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy. Civil rights campaigns in Little Rock, Arkansas; Macon, Georgia, Tallahassee, Florida; Washington, North Carolina; Birmingham and Selma Alabama; Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and many other places—had roots in organized resistance to sexual violence and appeals for protection of black womanhood.
Like the kidnapping and rape of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944, these brutal attacks almost always began at the dark end of the street. But African Americans would never let them stay there.
NOTES TO PROLOGUE EXCERPT
- 1 “Report” and “Supplemental Report,” submitted by N.W. Kimbrough and J.V. Kitchens, December 14 and 27, 1944, folder 1, CS. See also Earl Conrad, Eugene Gordon, and Henrietta Buckmaster, “Equal Justice Under Law,” pamphlet prepared by the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, n.d., in folder 3, ibid. The Rockhill Holiness church is still there, but is now called the Church of God in Christ. Thanks to Robert Corbitt and Josephine Baker for a tour of the church.
- 2 I-Corbitt 3. I-Corbitt &RTC. Corbitt, Recy’s youngest brother who was a witness to the events that followed the attack, corroborated nearly every detail in the Governor’s report.
- 3 “Report”, 7. According to reports, seven men were in the car, but only six participated in the gang rape. Billy Howerton claims he did not have sex with her. The other assailants corroborated Howerton’s testimony. See “Report,” 9-10.
- 4 I-RCT, I-Corbitt 8.