Last Wednesday, I reported for Colorlines.com that state Rep. Dexter Grimsley, D-Newville, wants Alabama to issue a formal state apology to Recy Taylor, 91, who was abducted and raped at gunpoint by seven white men in Abbeville on Sept. 3, 1944.
“The circumstances merit it,” Grimsley said recently. “It’s something that should be done. Recy Taylor found herself in a situation that wasn’t responded to, the way that the law would respond to something today.”
Now it appears that an apology from Henry County and the southeast Alabama city of Abbeville may come as soon as Monday, but it is unclear whether the state will take part. In a follow-up interview last Thursday, Rep. Grimsley said he would hold a press conference with Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock and County Commission Chairman Joanne Smith and “present a formal letter to the family.”
Asked if the apology would also be on behalf of the state, Grimsley said, “We haven’t addressed that level yet.”
The FBI is investigating dozens of civil rights-era homicides, mostly of men. But the sexual violence visited upon women like Taylor has never commanded the official attention of the FBI and other federal and state officials who have tried to right the crimes of our past.
“From slavery through the better part of the 20th century, white men in the segregated South abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity and often impunity,” explained historian Danielle McGuire, whose new book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance, was the first history of white-on-black sexual violence and black women’s organized resistance to it. “They lured black women and girls away from home with promises of work and steady wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gunpoint while traveling to or from home, work, church or school; and sexually harassed them at bus stops, grocery stores and in other public spaces.”
“Clearly there should be an apology from the state here as well as the county,” said Professor Margaret Burnham, director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program at Northeastern University School of Law. “Each failed to pursue the investigation aggressively and promptly, and more generally afforded utter impunity to white men who raped black women. Such a statement would not only honor Recy Taylor and her family for their courage and tenacity in seeking justice, but it would speak to scores of victims who similarly suffered in silence.”
‘Tiny bit of justice’
In October 1944, an all-white, all-male Henry County grand jury heard Taylor’s case. All seven alleged suspects were identified after one man who was picked up by the sheriff the night of the rape named them and confessed most of the details. But no evidence was gathered, and the grand jury returned no indictments.
It might have ended there, but in November 1944, Rosa Parks and other prominent activists, supported by national labor unions, African-American organizations and women’s groups, launched the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, which brought her case to the national stage. International attention pressured segregationist Gov. Chauncey Sparks to grudgingly launch an investigation a month later. At various times, both the Henry County sheriff and the suspects falsely claimed that Taylor was paid and was widely known as a prostitute.
Despite further admissions from the suspects, signed affidavits from eyewitnesses and other evidence, a second all-white, all-male grand jury in February 1945 returned no indictments.
It therefore came as some surprise to Taylor’s youngest brother, Robert Corbitt, when he typed his sister’s name into an Internet search box in November 2007 and found an article by McGuire detailing his sister’s story, answering many questions that had long gone unanswered, and correcting the record about his sister.
“That was the first tiny bit of justice that we got,” Corbitt, 74, said in a phone interview.
The FBI’s role
Though Alabama and five other Southern states have no statute of limitations on rape, only civil rights-era homicides of African Americans — mostly of men — have commanded the official attention of the FBI and other federal and state officials.
The six Southern, formerly segregated states with no statute of limitations on the crime of rape are: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Yet, local police and county sheriffs rarely have the staff or the budgets to conduct such investigations. Further, officials in small communities may lack motivation because they would be investigating their own relatives or the politically powerful.
When it comes to decades-old racially motivated deaths, the FBI can investigate cases even when there is no federal jurisdiction. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act of 2008 directs the FBI to investigate and do community outreach with the express purpose of supporting or encouraging state and local action.
Asked if the FBI could play a similar role in addressing decades-old racially motivated rapes, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said, “The public is always welcome to report an allegation of a crime to their local FBI office, where it will be reviewed to determine if a federal violation exists.”
No special consideration would be made. “We would handle [it] as we do every other allegation of a crime: on its own merits,” Allen said.
Testimony of black women
In an e-mail interview, Professor McGuire says her research “covers about 64 cases of white on black rape from 1940 to 1975 and is not exhaustive in any way.
“I found black women’s testimonies of sexual violence everywhere I looked.”
Does Professor Burnham think the Department of Justice ought to address civil-rights era, racially motivated rapes in states like Alabama?
“The Emmett Till Act itself only covers murders,” Burnham said. “But the animating spirit of the act is to encourage law enforcement and courts to redress the racial wrongs that locked black crime victims out of the justice system during the mid-20th century. Certainly, if opportunities for prosecution remain open, the Justice Department should play a role.”
Focusing on apology
Robert Corbitt has for some years been tracking the lives of the men alleged to have raped his sister. Today, six of the men are dead, according to Corbitt, and there is one who may still be alive.
But Corbitt and his sister Recy Taylor aren’t focused on those men now. They are focused, instead, on the apology. They want the truth officially acknowledged by the city and state that they say so completely failed Taylor.
“Official apologies have to be a part of a multi-dimensional remedial program,” Burnham emphasized. “All over the world, public officials have apologized for past wrongs. Indeed, the governor of Alabama apologized for slavery in 2007, and in 1996 President Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee syphilis study.”
“I would like to see her have some peace before she leaves this earth,” Corbitt said. “What hurt her the most was their saying this never happened.”
Ben Greenberg is a Boston-based writer and photographer and a founding member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, an investigative journalism effort that also involves The Anniston Star. His blog is hungryblues.net and he is @minorjive on Twitter. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Parts of this op-ed originally appeared in different form at Colorlines.com.