Much of the writing about Rosa Parks has been about her refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger on a bus. Her act of civil disobedience, on December 1, 1955, led to the Montgomery bus boycott, and ultimately the desegregation of buses in the city. This furthered the cause of the organization for racial and economic equality in America.
But more than a decade before Parks became a civil rights icon for refusing to give up her bus seat, she was a sexual assault investigator. Having joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1943, she began work on criminal justice in communities in Alabama. She ensured that Black men were protected from false accusations and lynchings while also seeing to it that Black women who had been sexually assaulted by White men were given opportunities to be heard and to defend themselves in a court of law.
Fighting for Black women who had been sexually abused was a big deal for Parks due to her own experience with sexual assault. She once 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 resisted. She wrote: “I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never.”
In 1944, obtaining justice for a Black woman in the segregated South was almost impossible but that didn’t discourage Parks from traveling to Abbeville, Alabama, to investigate a gang rape incident that reached the office of the NAACP in Montgomery.
Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old Black mother, was walking home from church in her small Alabama town with her friend Fannie Daniel on the evening of September 3, 1944, when a car carrying seven young White men pulled up. The men accused Taylor of attacking a White boy in a neighboring town before forcing her into the car, claiming they were taking her to the sheriff. They drove her 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.
They then threatened to kill her if she reported the crime. But once Taylor was found by her father struggling to make her way home, she told him what had happened and they both went to see the local county sheriff, Lewey Corbitt. Corbitt drove her to a store to see if they could find any of the men involved in the dastardly act. As a matter of fact, two of her rapists were found. It is documented that one of the assailants, Hugo Wilson, confessed to the rape and named six others involved: Dillard York; Billy Howerton; Herbert Lovett; Luther Lee; Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble. Yet, none of them was arrested.
When the Montgomery office of the NAACP got wind of the news of Taylor’s assault, they decided to send one of their best investigators, Parks, to look into the case. Parks traveled to Taylor’s home in Abbeville, where she began interviewing the married mother. During the interview, the local sheriff, Corbitt, drove past Taylor’s house several times before eventually entering the house and demanding Parks leave. “I don’t want any troublemakers here in Abbeville,” he said. “If you don’t go, I’ll lock you up.”
Parks came back to Montgomery, where she launched the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor. Thanks to the Committee, the Recy Taylor case made headlines across the country by October 1944. Still, on October 9, 1944, a grand jury refused to indict the men. Earlier, reports said the suspects’ lawyer offered $600 to Willie Guy Taylor, Recy’s husband, to silence his wife.
Parks, furious at the way the case was being handled, called on people to write protest letters to then-Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks. She also wrote a letter 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.”
“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,” she wrote.
Parks got a response from the governor, who asked that the case is looked at again. But on February 14, 1945, a grand jury refused to indict the suspects — for a second time. In 2010, Taylor’s case and Parks’ role in it aroused media interest again following the release of the book, At the Dark End of the Street, by Danielle L. McGuire. The following year, Alabama lawmakers finally apologized to Taylor. “That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama,” a resolution approved by the Alabama House of Representatives read. “That we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.”
Parks passed away in 2005. Taylor in her final days lived in a Florida nursing home. She died on December 28, 2017, at age 97.