10 Groundbreaking Cases You’ve Never Heard of That Propelled the Civil Rights Movement

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Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks: the classic figures representative of the wider civil rights movement. But what about the other people that helped? What about Recy Taylor, Claudette Colvin, and Joan Little? What about the injustices faced by Gertrude Perkins or Betty Jean Owens? Well, read on to learn about cases of sexual violence, tales of resistance, and the bravery of those willing to stand up and speak out.

I have to admit, I have included Rosa Parks in here but that’s because I believe there is a great misunderstanding about who she is, what she did, and her motivation for doing so. So, in order to dispel the myths, make sure you read all about her! I would also like to highlight a major theme throughout this list examines sexual assault cases and occasionally discusses the details of such cases – reader discretion is advised.

1. Recy Taylor (1944, Abbeville, Alabama)

On the 3rd September 1944, an African-American sharecropper named Recy Taylor walked home from church with a friend and her son. A car pulled up on the side of the road with seven armed men inside, including US Army Private Herbert Lovett. These men proceeded to drive her to a shaded spot by the side of a road. After being forcibly undressed, Recy begged them to allow her to return home to her family. She had a husband and a young child. Instead, her assailants ignored these requests and six of the men raped her.

Fannie Daniel, the friend walking with her initially, immediately reported Recy’s kidnapping to the police. Fannie identified the car and found it belonged to a man named Hugo Wilson. Hugo admitted to taking Recy and named the six men that raped her. However, even after naming the men, the police did not call in any of those mentioned. Instead, the police merely fined Wilson $250.

Naturally, the black community of Henry County was outraged. Citizens reported events of the day to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They sent their best investigator and activist against sexual assault – none other than the famous Rosa Parks. I mean, who knew what a powerhouse this woman really was! But I’ll get into that later. Anyway – at the first trial in 1944, an all-white, all-male jury dismissed the case after a mere five minutes of deliberation. The main problem was that the police had not arrested any of the assailants and Recy’s family could not identify them by name. Further, because a line-up was never arranged, Recy could not identify them herself.

The case could only be reopened via an indictment from a grand jury. At this point, more organizations rallied to Recy’s defense. The Governor of Alabama, Chauncey Sparks, also (admittedly reluctantly) got involved. He interviewed the main police officer responsible for handling the case. Sheriff Gamble began to falsely claim he arrested all of the men involved, and he accused Recy of being a whore, mentioning how the Health Officer of Henry County treated her for a venereal disease.

At the second hearing, investigators mentioned the interviews they held with the assailants. Four of the seven men admitted to intercourse with Recy but argued she was essentially a prostitute and willing. One assailant, however, admitted they were looking for a woman that night, there was a gun involved, and that they raped Recy Taylor that night. Despite having this information, a national campaign rallying to her defense, and a gubernatorial intervention, it was still not convincing enough. In February 1945, a second all-white all-male jury declined to indict the men. No charges were brought against them.

This case became pivotal in generating a desire for a greater civil rights movement. It showed activists could be mobilized and that this was not an isolated problem. Similar stories poured out in communities around America and it helped to form the building blocks of the Montgomery bus boycott that occurred a decade later. In 2011, the Alabama House of Representatives officially apologized to Recy on behalf of the state for their errors and the way that she was treated.

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