Recy Taylor’s brother recalls that Oprah Winfrey telephoned her around Mother’s Day in 2011.
That was when the state of Alabama finally apologized to Taylor for having failed to prosecute seven armed white men who abducted and gang raped her on Sept. 3, 1944, as she walked from church to home, where she lived with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter. None of the men were ever charged, although one of them confessed.
“She was crying and asking us to let her go home to her husband and baby,” the admitted rapist had told authorities afterward.
Taylor was no doubt glad to get the message of support from Winfrey after the state, along with her native Henry County and hometown of Abbeville acknowledged an abhorrent racial injustice after more than seven decades.
Neither woman could have foreseen that on Jan. 7, 2018—eight days before what would have been Taylor’s 98th birthday—Winfrey would make her the centerpiece of a remarkable speech at the Golden Globe Awards. Winfrey would offer an imagining of true American greatness extending even beyond that of the dream Martin Luther King Jr. so famously proclaimed in 1963 at the civil rights rally in Washington, D.C.
“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true,” King had said back then of his vision of true racial equality.
But, as the Access Hollywood tape reminds us in our present time of Make America Great Again, we are a country not just of Jim Crow but also of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. And whatever progress we have made to end oppression of people of color, we must be equally determined to address sexual violence against women.
Winfrey noted in her speech that Taylor’s cause had been taken up by a young Rosa Parks of the NAACP after she defied the rapists’ threat to be silent or die. But Taylor—who as it happened died 10 days before the Golden Globes—was victimized not just because of her race but also because of her gender.
“She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men,” Winfrey said. “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men, but their time is up.”
Winfrey went on, melding word and tone and feeling and reason into TV of deepest reality.
“Their time is up. Their time is up. And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years and even now tormented, goes marching on.”
Winfrey was saying that oppression was oppression and those who challenged it acted out of the same impulse, be it in the face of racism or sexual assault or both.
“It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’ heart almost 11 years later when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery. And it’s here with every woman who chooses to say, ‘Me too’ and every man, every man who chooses to listen.”
Winfrey spoke of the people she had interviewed and portrayed “who have withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you.” She noted, “The one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.”
Winfrey then offered her dream:
“So I want all the girls watching here now to know that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again.”
The dream was so stirring, the words so rousing, that people began saying that Oprah should run for president. Taylor’s brother, Robert Corbitt, confirmed that Winfrey had his sister exactly right when it came to prevailing over adversity.
“She had a pretty long and good life despite the tragedy that happened to her,” Corbitt told The Daily Beast this week. “She always had a smile on her face. She taught me to smile so I try to keep one.”
Their mother had died in 1936, when Taylor was 17. Taylor had taken over raising her six younger siblings. Corbitt and been the youngest.
“[Their mother] told her to take care of the kids, especially the baby, and that was me,” Corbitt recalled.
Taylor made sure her siblings attended the local school, which was segregated and happened to have been built by Rosa Parks’ father, James McCauley, a carpenter. McCauley had included a large library with enough shelves for tomes of every kind. The authorities, though, felt a black school needed no more than a single title.
“They felt a volume of encyclopedias was enough,” Corbitt says.
Then came the gang rape, which was accompanied by death threats if Taylor told anybody and followed by a firebombing of her home the next day.
“So we missed a year of school,” Corbitt recalled.
Their father spent every night perched protectively in a Chinaberry tree overlooking the street.
“He looked like a huge bird up in that tree and he had his shotgun up there and that's where he stayed every night,” Corbitt remembered.
Taylor refused to be intimidated and went to the authorities and worked with Parks get justice.
“Recy was a fighter,” Corbitt told The Daily Beast.
Corbitt was heartsick.
“She was a sweet sister and what happened to her was a tragedy,” he later said.
The attack had left Taylor unable to have more children. She eventually moved with her husband and their daughter to Winter Garden, Florida. The couple separated and the husband died soon afterward. Taylor worked picking oranges.
In 1967, Taylor’s one and only child was killed in a car accident, along with a granddaughter. A second granddaughter was in the car, but survived.
Corbitt had moved to New York in 1956 “just to get away from Abbeville.” He learned to repair air conditioners and was on a job in Riverdale in the Bronx when he encountered a blond man whom he might have recognized had he been more celebrity conscious. Somebody in the building then told him who he had just met.
“They said it was Donald Trump,” Corbitt remembered.
In 2001, after 46 years, Corbitt moved back to Abbeville. The school had integrated in 1970, after the time Trump seems to imagine America was great. And racism was now generally less virulent.
“Abbeville is a different place than it used to be,” Corbitt said. “You didn’t have the hatefulness.”
Corbitt remained acutely aware of the unresolved injustice that his sweet sister had suffered.
“She never talked about it, except to me,” he told The Daily Beast.
Corbitt set to studying the case and pressing for an official apology for the unconscionable inaction. A decade of efforts paid off in 2011.
Taylor was visiting Abbeville on Mother’s Day when she received the state’s written expression of regret for the failure to prosecute the rapists who attacked her so savagely she had been unable to become a mother again. She was presented with the document at Rock Hill Holiness Church, the very one she had just left just before she was abducted.
“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, that we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, 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.”
Taylor still had her surviving granddaughter Mary Owens, and they traveled to Washington, D.C., together for a forum at the National Press Club about Rosa Parks.
“A lot more to see than Abbeville,” she told a reporter.
Taylor took a tour of the White House and afterward said that she particularly liked the Vermeil Room, where portraits of the First Ladies are hung. She did not get to meet the Obamas, though she kept a picture of them in her Florida living room, a marker of how much greater America had become.
She subsequently began to suffer encroaching dementia and returned to Abbeville. She rejoined the adoring brother she so adored.
“She still called me ‘Baby,’” Corbitt reported.
Corbitt last saw her on Dec. 27. She was largely eclipsed by dementia, but she continued to smile as she had taught him to smile so many years before.
“She had a good day that day,” Corbitt later said. “She was in good spirits. She lay down that night and…”
Taylor died in her sleep. The hour-long funeral was held in Abbeville on Jan. 6, a week after what would have been her 98th birthday.
“We kept it kind of low key,” Corbitt said. “We didn’t want to say anything about the negative things of her life. Everything was positive.”
Two days later, Winfrey gave her big speech. Corbitt fell asleep before it came on, but he later watched a recording.
“It was very heartwarming,” Corbitt said. “It let the world know about Recy back in those days.”
Corbitt would no longer had any trouble recognizing Donald Trump along with what Trump represents, but was not immediately convinced that Winfrey should run for president. The woman whose photo his sister had kept was of someone who might make a more perfect candidate if only she wanted it.
“Michelle,” Corbitt said, meaning the former first lady.
As we come to Martin Luther King Day, we have the legacy of Recy Taylor to teach us that the dreams of King and Winfrey are entwined into a vision of an America made great as never before.
Meanwhile, Corbitt is reconciled enough with Alabama that he rooted for it against Georgia in last week’s college football championship game. He continues to do his part for the dream by organizing an effort to restore Rosa Parks’ childhood home, which her father built as well as the school.
“If you want to see an 81-year-old baby, come down and see me,” Corbitt said.