74 years ago, Recy Taylor, a 24-year old African-American woman, was brutally victimized while walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama with two friends. A car full of 7 white teenagers pulled up, abducted Mrs. Taylor at gunpoint, and brutally raped her. This type of crime was common, part of the system of Jim Crow racism, and normally unspeakable, but She Spoke Up. Recy Taylor reported the crime immediately, and sought justice with the assistance of the NAACP. But despite a mountain of evidence that she was telling the truth, including confessions from several of the young men, two all-white, all-male grand juries declined to even indict the rapists for their horrific crimes. After the gang rape, many of the young men left town to join the military, and if you asked the white community these men would be remembered to this day by many people as war heroes, fathers, husbands, brothers. Recy Taylor’s search for justice continued for the rest of her long life, and she has achieved a measure of karmic justice in the telling of her story. It is important that we continue to learn the lessons of this American injustice.
As an Executive Producer of the acclaimed documentary by Nancy Buirski, “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” I have had a chance the study this case in depth and with many audiences. At a screening last month, an audience member asked the question, “why didn’t the boys just admit openly that they had done it, if they weren’t going to be prosecuted?” While some did eventually confess under interrogation that sexual acts had happened, the teenage assailants made up lies and excuses, claiming that Mrs. Taylor was a prostitute and that they had paid her, so it was not a crime. The audience member’s question made me think about how willingly we accept very flimsy lies and excuses for assaults, harassment and other crimes, and the role that our acceptance of the lies plays in protecting a system that perpetuates abuse by protecting male (often white male) prerogative and giving so much weight to empathizing with abusers rather than those who are assaulted. It is up to each of us to keep asking tough questions by digging deeper and not just accept answers and excuses that clearly don’t add up.
The lessons of Recy Taylor’s assault flashed like a beacon for me during the Roy Moore US Senate run, as well as right now with Brett Cavanaugh’s nomination to become the next Supreme Court Justice. Kavanaugh is up for a lifetime appointment and now he is facing serious charges of an attempted sexual assault alleged by a fellow high school student in 1982, when she was 15 years old and he was 17, with a friend of Kavanaugh’s also present in the room. At this moment the Senate Judiciary Committee is trying to figure out how to proceed to hear the allegations. Long story short, the Senators don’t have an established process in place and have a terrible track record given how they mis-handled the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, when Anita Hill was treated horribly by the committee as she testified about Thomas’ harassing her when he was her boss at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser, reported that their was a third person in the room during the violent assault, Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge. Mark Judge’s initial defense of Kavanaugh’s character was tissue paper thin when held it up to the light of Mr. Judge’s past writings. As reported by The New York Times:
Mr. Judge, an author, filmmaker and journalist who has written for the conservative Daily Caller and The Weekly Standard, said that the students were raised in Catholic homes and taught that the kind of behavior as described in the letter would not be tolerated. “Something like that would stick out,” he said, “which is why I don’t think it would happen.”
This same man, Mark Judge, wrote a novel about his blackout drinking days of partying while being a student at Georgetown Prep with Kavanaugh, Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk. This gives lie to his claim that being raised in Catholic homes and going to Catholic prep school means that the assault would not happen. Kavanaugh himself gave a speech in 2015 saying it is a good thing that they lived by the rule of “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown prep.” Their yearbooks from the time show lots of references to drinking and partying, and Mark Judge featured a Noel Coward quote about hitting women his personal page: “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”
If you scratch the surface even a little bit, Judge’s claim of cultural innocence doesn’t hold up. There was the public image of the school and the reality. This might not mean it is a bad school, but you can’t just argue that we are good Catholic boys so this would not happen. (You would think that other abuse allegations in the Catholic church would have destroyed this kind of blanket denial by now, but apparently not.)
I will share just one more example. Yesterday evangelist Franklin Graham made statements defending Kavanaugh that provide a fig leaf of supposed credibility for any believers who will be placated by it. In an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network Graham said not only that the accusations are “not relevant” but also:
“Well, there wasn’t a crime that was committed. These are two teenagers and it’s obvious that she said no and he respected it and walked away.”
There is a lot going on in those two offensive sentences. Graham’s conclusion is totally at odds with Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegation, in which she said that the assault was so violent that she was afraid that Kavanaugh would indavertently kill her. Graham isn’t saying that Blasey Ford made up her story entirely, he is saying that if it did happen, it didn’t happen the way she reported it, but the way he wants to spin and diminish it. So now we have the men saying that either it didn’t happen at all, I wasn’t there (Kavanaugh and Judge) OR, if it did happen, it doesn’t matter, it wasn’t a crime, it wasn’t violent. Like saying that Recy Taylor was a prostitute and they threw a few dollars on her after raping her, so it was okay. That is an insidious, gaslighting kind of denial.
WHEN will we insist on better than this? Please let the answer be NOW. The path forward is an FBI interview of all parties implicated in this assault. The Senate Judiciary Committee is not equipped to handle this, we need trained FBI investigators to evaluate the credibility of each person’s story and other corroborating witnesses as an extension of the FBI background check of Brett Kavanaugh. Who has the power to ask for this FBI review? President Donald Trump, himself accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, who this morning said “But I can only say this, he is such an outstanding man. Very hard for me to imagine that anything happened.” So stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath.