Recy Taylor died at the age of 97 on Dec. 28. Though she was always loved and admired by her family, friends and supporters, it was in the last years of her life that the wider world saw her, really saw this African-American woman from Alabama — her bravery, her strength and her role as a leader in a struggle that has found a loud voice.
Through a book and a film that amplified her story of being kidnapped and raped by white men, and then speaking out about that horrific crime in 1944, when doing so jeopardized her life, Taylor could more than legitimately claim a role as a mother of the movement that has come to be known as #MeToo, one that has stretched from the entertainment and media worlds to the halls of Congress.
Tarana Burke, the African-American woman who originated the powerful words in that hashtag and a nonprofit to continue the hard work of positive change, has a piece of that leadership, too, though apparently that was not enough for a spot on the Time Magazine cover that named “The Silence Breakers” its person of the year. (Looking at Taylor Swift’s cover pose on that issue was almost, though not quite, enough to nostalgically recall Kanye West’s award show interaction with the singer as he tried to claim her prize for Beyoncé.)
It’s kind of a pattern. In tangled tales of the intersection of racism and sexism, women of color are depended upon for the hard work but pushed aside for recognition.
This past year, however, saw some bright light at the end of that tunnel, and not just in the delayed elevation of the history shaped by Taylor and other women of her time whose names we will never know.
My favorite photo from the January post-inauguration Women’s March showed a sea of pink-hatted women in the background, while in the foreground an African-American woman, calmly enjoying her lollipop, toted a sign reading “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump,” which, of course, by a majority of a few percentage points, they did. And this was after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape revealed Trump bragging about grabbing women in specific private places.
The march was planned by a coalition of women, many of them women of color, who would not think of moving to the back, perhaps channeling Ida B. Wells, the pioneering African-American journalist and activist who refused to take her assigned place at the rear of a Washington, D.C., suffragette march in 1913.
Watch: ‘There’s a Big Step Between Marching and Running’
After Alabama’s special election for Senate last month, no one had to carry a sign. A majority of white women voted for Roy Moore, the man accused of sexual misconduct with teen girls, while a majority of Alabama’s black voters — black women, at 98 percent, in particular — made the difference in a close win for Democrat Doug Jones. They didn’t just show up; their on-the-ground activism had been a tradition since black women put their lives on the line to win the right to vote for African-Americans, since activist Rosa Parks traveled to Abbeville to investigate and publicize Recy Taylor’s story, since well before that.
In an open letter this past year to DNC Chairman Tom Perez, a group of African-American female lawmakers, leaders and activists warned the Democratic Party that their support must be earned, not taken for granted, and stated their case for decision-making roles.
Making a list
To their list of African-American women — and other women of color — making history across the country, winning races up and down the ballot in states from Texas to Kentucky to Minnesota, could be added more names elected since then: in state delegate races in Virginia, as lieutenant governor in New Jersey and as a “first” in the Charlotte, North Carolina, mayor’s race.
Other events saw African-American women speaking out. The questions posed by Sen. Kamala Harris to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were judged tough by some, rude by others, as she was shushed by male Senate colleagues. But she was unafraid — and probably all too familiar with being labeled aggressive or angry, epithets women of color know will be tossed their way no matter how genteel their manners and demeanor. Ask Michelle Obama.
Not shying away from the spotlight has meant Harris is now mentioned in the mix of possible 2020 presidential candidates. If she takes steps to enter that race, she will have company in the number of women of color from both parties running for office, many with the support of organizations such as Higher Heights, with its mission “to expand and support the Black women’s leadership pipeline at all levels and strengthen their civic participation leading up to and beyond Election Day.”
Anita Hill, the attorney and academic so dismissed and disrespected by a panel of white male legislators when she testified at the Senate confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, will be heading a commission on sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, reclaiming a leadership spot.
Angela Peoples, the woman holding that sign one year ago, offered some advice on solidarity in an interview in The Root: “Black women, we got us; we’re continuing to organize our own communities, we’re continuing to hold folks accountable across genders, across race. I would actually say to white women, if you want to be a part of a powerful movement that’s going to get something done, you need to get behind and trust black women, trust black femmes, trust black trans women. Because we are making this way out of no way.”
Danielle L. McGuire dedicated her 2010 book “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” to the women whose story she told. At the New York Film Festival showing of “The Rape of Recy Taylor” last October, its director Nancy Buirski said it was an American story about a shared legacy many would prefer to hide. These two women, who happen to be white, knew the necessity of including all voices in what we know as U.S. history — the essential facts and enduring lessons everyone should know.
Now that more voices are being heard and more faces, past and present, seen — finally seen — in all their righteous humanity, it may be African-American women leading America through its next chapter.
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.