11 Dec Roll Call | Opinion: Remembering Recy Taylor and the Too Familiar State of Alabama
The Yellowhammer State has real heroes. Why Roy Moore?
In “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” a recently released documentary, you see the face of bravery. It is Recy Taylor, the 24-year-old African-American — a wife and mother of an infant daughter — kidnapped in 1944 by a carful of young white men, some the sons of the “respectable” leaders of Abbeville, Alabama, where they all lived. A gun held to her head, she was blindfolded, driven to a remote spot and violated in unimaginable ways. She escaped being killed by promising to keep quiet.
But she did not keep that promise.
Taylor’s legacy can be seen in the women speaking up now about sexual harassment of all kinds, most recently Alabama women who on the surface have little in common with a poor black sharecropper from decades ago. In fact, Beverly Young Nelson, who became the fifth woman to accuse Roy Moore when she tearfully recounted her story of an alleged sexual assault, said she and her husband voted for Donald Trump, while Taylor, in her midcentury time, was not allowed to vote at all.
Back then, black men were lynched because of the hysterical fear that they were lusting after white women, when in truth it was white men with all the power who were disrespecting, assaulting and raping black women without rebuke or punishment, as authorities looked the other way. These white men often shamed and blamed the women who dared come forward as temptresses.
That was the treatment of Recy Taylor, who was walking home from church services when her life was forever changed.
Blame the victim?
When Leigh Corfman shared detailed recollections in the Washington Post of being sexually molested by Republican Senate candidate Moore when she was 14 and he was a 32-year-old prosecutor — a story of confusion and shock and self-blame — she, too, was disbelieved and vilified by many of Moore’s supporters.
As “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” directed by my former New York Times colleague Nancy Buirski, shows, Taylor suffered mightily for speaking her truth, though the 1944 crime was investigated by NAACP activist Rosa Parks, not the meek seamstress of Montgomery bus boycott fame, but a longtime warrior for justice. Taylor’s story was shared across the world by the black press, who celebrated Taylor’s strength and resolve, though that — plus witness testimony and Taylor’s identification of the perpetrators — was not enough to convince two grand juries in her home state.
Not everyone is skeptical of Roy Moore’s accusers. Powerful white men, among them Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, are believing the women and saying so out loud. Dogged by Congress’ own record of harassment, attested to by women of both parties, lawmakers in a rare bipartisan move have started to do something about that, too. Republican leaders have urged Moore to step out of the race.
But some disturbing details are all too familiar. Some of the most ardent and strident testimonials for Moore are coming from white evangelicals and pastors within Alabama who cherry-pick Bible verses in their virtual cross-examination of women who have spoken out despite the cost.
Shawn Major, a 53-year-old pastor from Bon Secour, Alabama, told Bloomberg Politics that he supports Moore for his “Christian values, his morals, his stand on the word of God.”
Let that sink in.
In most southern towns, churches dot the landscape. In Alabama not all that long ago, churches where African-Americans worshipped also were targets — Birmingham was known as “Bombingham” — with the enforcers of racist laws and custom sometimes using the Bible and regular attendance at their own segregated churches as cover for misdeeds or tacit approval of the criminals who lit the match.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his April 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” chided his fellow clergy, saying churches that refused to take a principled stand would be “dismissed as an irrelevant social club.” In September of that year, in a notorious bombing at the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church, racists murdered four little girls dressed in their Sunday best.
Doug Jones, the Democrat running against Moore, is an experienced prosecutor who built the case that finally led to the conviction in the 21st century of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, two of the four perpetrators in that 1963 horror. As a law student Jones had admired the 1977 efforts of William Joseph Baxley II, then attorney general of Alabama, to prosecute Robert Chambliss for his part in the crime.
You would think that those who profess to live a godly life would look to that as an example — or at least consider it a plus on the record of a man. Instead, in Alabama, a majority of white evangelicals polled still support Moore, though outside the state, there is soul-searching among those communities.
Despite my Catholic’s albatross of a not-quite-encyclopedic knowledge of scripture, I do recall parables of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple, exalting the lowly and befriending those who are abandoned and alone.
So why this support of Roy Moore?
Is it because he was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments statue from a government building and resisting laws approving same-sex marriage? Or because he once said duly elected Muslim-American Congressman Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, should not be allowed to serve?
White evangelicals, a large part of the Alabama electorate, overwhelmingly approved of Donald Trump, who on videotape and in radio interviews bragged about how he could grab women or walk in on half-naked teen beauty pageant contestants.
If polls are to be believed, in a race that’s close, Alabama voters may send to the Senate a man former colleagues remember trolling malls and high school football games for dates. That would leave the women brave enough to name him feeling like outsiders in the state that put him there.
In that, they have something in common with Recy Taylor, someone not of their time or race, but an Alabamian to the core who should have been held dear.
Taylor has outlived her attackers and survived her experiences and a hard life — and she has received an overdue apology from the state of Alabama. Her story and many like it, as well as that of valiant investigator Rosa Parks, were told in “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” by Danielle L. McGuire, who told me in a 2010 interview, “White women have not always acknowledged their debt to these black women,” who had been speaking out “for a long, long time.”
Though Taylor was not well enough to attend a New York Film Festival screening and see an audience moved by her story, her brother, Robert Corbitt — a child when his sister was attacked — did. He spoke of the sheriff, judged a fine man by supporters in the film, as instead protecting his friends as he doled out daily brutalities and humiliations to Abbeville’s black residents. Robert said their father slept in a tree outside their house holding a gun in the crook of his arm to protect them as best he could.
He remembered his sister’s courage and his relief that more people are learning her story. Let’s hope some of those inspired are the hurting and abused young people at churches whose leaders defend the likes of Trump and Moore.
Alabama has always been home to many fine citizens such as Taylor, whose examples have reached those far beyond its borders. With so many real heroes, the question is, why are so many paving the way for false prophets?
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.