Taylor, who would’ve celebrated her 98th birthday on Sunday (Dec. 31), passed away in her sleep at a nursing home in her native Abbeville, Ala., NBC News reports. Her story came to prominence more than 70 years ago, when she survived the brutal sexual assault.
On September 3, 1944, Taylor, her friend, Fannie Daniel, and Daniel’s teenage son, were walking home from church when a car of white men pulled up besides them and subsequently forced Taylor into the car at gunpoint. She was blindfolded and driven to a wooded area where she was forced to undress, gang raped, and left on the side of the road.
At the time, Taylor, was a 24-year-old married mother of an infant.
Daniel reported the rape to police, and despite three witnesses identifying the men, no one was arrested. One of the assailants, Hugo Wilson, was identified by Daniel as driving the vehicle and admitted to picking Taylor up, but blamed the rape on the six others: Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble. Hugo was fined $250 by the town’s sheriff, and never faced charges.
Authorities’ decision to ignore Taylor’s rape, led to outrage among black residents of Abbeville, and caught the attention of NAACP chapters in Alabama. The civil rights organization dispatched Rosa Parks, who at the time was an Alabama activist against sexual assault of black women, to investigate the case.
Parks, along with the help of other black activists in the state, formed the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, an organization that rallied national support. In October of 1944, Taylor’s rapists finally went to trial, but a jury of white men voted to dismiss the case, after deliberating for only five minutes.
Thanks to Parks and the tireless work of other freedom fighters, Taylor’s story continued to spread among black media outlets up north, and was later reported by the New York Daily News and Pittsburgh Courier. In addition, activists wrote letters requesting that then Governor Chauncey Sparks investigate Taylor’s rape, and he “reluctantly agreed” to do so.
Four of the rapists were interviewed during Sparks’ investigation, and admitted to having sex with Taylor, but lied and said that it was consensual. However, Culpepper admitted that they were trolling for a woman to attack, and confessed to the horrid rape details that Taylor had already recounted.
Even with Culpepper’s confession, a second jury of white men refused to indict Taylor’s rapists.
Meanwhile, Taylor courageously faced the second court case amid attempts to smear her credibility by falsely accusing her of being a prostitute. She and her family were subjected to constant mistreatment and death threats from whites in the town. The family feared for their safety for decades after the failed indictment.
Taylor eventually moved to Florida before returning to Abbeville. Finally, in 2011, the Alabama Legislature formally apologized to Taylor for not prosecuting her rapists. Her story is the subject of a new documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor, where she vividly recalls the sexual assault years later.
“I saw the car pull up behind me,” Taylor says. “They put me in the car and blindfolded me. I was begging them to leave me alone, don’t shoot me, I’ve got to go home to see about my baby. They wouldn’t let me go.”
Watch the film’s trailer in the video above.