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Filmmaker Discusses 'The Rape Of Recy Taylor' Documentary And Fight For Justice

Augusta Films LLC

While walking home from church one night in 1944 in rural southeastern Alabama, an African-American woman named Recy Taylor was kidnapped at gunpoint and gang-raped by six white men.

The documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” released last year, chronicles Taylor’s pursuit of justice in an era when most black rape victims kept quiet.  It’s the work of filmmaker Nancy Buirksi, who will be in Charlotte this Saturday for a Charlotte Film Society screening at the Wells Fargo Auditorium. Buirksi says when she began looking into Taylor's story, she was astounded by the number of rapes that occurred in that period.

WFAE's Marshall Terry spoke with her this week:

Buirski: It was just ubiquitous. Women were raped with wild abandon. White men during that period had kind of inherited the legacy from slave days where they felt they owned these women's bodies. They could attack them or cause them to, you know, have intercourse with them because they felt that they had a right to do that. Young men did it as a rite of passage and their fathers and their uncles encouraged them to do it. This is what happened on plantations and this is what was going on in the 40s in the Deep South.

Terry: As we mentioned, Recy was not silent about what happened to her. Just how unusual was that in those times?

Buirski: It was rare. Not only were women worried about their jobs and they were but they were even more worried about their lives. These men had threatened to kill her and she had somehow convinced them to let her go because she had a baby at home and she wanted to go home and take care of her baby. So, she promised not to say anything but of course the minute they let her go, she did. She went to the sheriff with her father and she reported the entire incident. She had recognized some of the boys so she was able to identify a few of them. What was also extraordinary was the support she had from her family. Her family knew as did Recy that she had done nothing wrong. She had nothing to be ashamed of. But this is something that was happening all the time and it was time for it to stop.

Terry: This case drew national attention. How unusual was that for this time period?

Filmmaker Nancy Buirski first learned about Recy Taylor in a book that looks at women who were precursors to the Civil Rights movement.
Credit Augusta Films LLC
Filmmaker Nancy Buirski first learned about Recy Taylor in a book that looks at women who were precursors to the Civil Rights movement.

Buirski: Well, it was unusual because papers rarely reported at some of the black newspapers reported it. But other than that, these things were not heard of. You know rapes were a hidden kind of terrorism as compared to lynching. Lynching that took place and it pretty much stopped by the end of the 30s, whatever lynching that took place prior to this period was meant to be public. It was meant to let blacks know how to behave and where they stood in society. This committee was formed to help Recy Taylor used the newspapers that were reporting it to spread the word. They also sent hundreds and hundreds of telegrams to the governor and to other newspapers to get on board and to report this. What they were looking for was another grand jury hearing and of course, the first one let the guys go. They did not indict them. So, what they wanted was a second one and they wanted a bigger investigation.

Terry: You reached out to relatives of the men that Recy said were the ones that raped her. Were you met with resistance when you did that?

Buirski: We felt resistance overall while we were making the movie. There wasn't a lot of people who wanted to jump on board and help us. There were some but not a lot. The brothers who appear in the film The Brothers of the rapists did so I think somewhat reluctantly but on the other hand, I think that the fact that they were willing to talk about it indicates the sense that they had that this wasn't really a crime. That this was just what boys did. You know, boys will be boys kind of thing and so they were kind of trivializing in their interview and I think that's one of the reasons they were willing to speak.

Terry: Two separate grand juries refused to issue any indictments in this case so it ends up being a failure of justice but did Recy's defiance inspire more black women to speak up after being raped?

Buirski: Yes more and more. Also, the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor reformed itself into a committee that helped women in general who had been physically abused. So, more women felt they had the support of this committee and the fact that it had been communicated in newspapers more people knew about it. Yes, it made for a very different climate.

Terry: She only passed away in the past year. At the end of her life, how did Recy view what she went through, not just the rape but the aftermath?

Buirski: She said to us more than once: "I just had to. I had to tell what happened to me. I had to say what they did to me." She's never changed her attitude about that. She would have liked to have gotten justice. A different kind of justice. She knew we were working on this film and she was very pleased about that. She was also pleased with the book that came come out that highlighted her case. So, she kind of got justice in the court of public opinion. But would she have rather had a little bit more justice? I think so. The state did apologize to her. There was a referendum that took place in the House of Representatives of Alabama and they gave her a formal apology and I think that meant something to her as well. She was so brave and believed that she had to do what was right to speak up for herself. I think it's a lesson to all of us that anybody can change history. 

The Charlotte Film Society will show "The Rape of Recy Taylor" on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Auditorium. Buirski will address the audience and answer questions after the screening.