A Q&A with Mary Frances Berry
Long before civil rights activist Tarana Burke began the #MeToo movement, a young black woman publicly testified and identified the group of white men who, in 1944, kidnapped and gang-raped her. She was Recy Taylor, and she spoke out against the crime committed against her, even when the men threatened to kill her for doing so. None of the men were indicted. It would take the state of Alabama sixty years to offer her a formal apology. She died on December 28, 2017.
Taylor’s bravery in the hostile environment of the Jim Crow South will not be forgotten. Oprah Winfrey honored Taylor in her 2018 Golden Globes speech, saying:
“She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up....I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on.”
What can we learn from Taylor’s story in this moment where more and more women are coming forward to tell their stories of surviving sexual harassment and assault? We asked Dr. Mary Frances Berry, author of the forthcoming book History Teaches Us to Resist, to find out.
Christian Coleman: Recy Taylor testified about her rape decades before the #MeToo movement. What other examples in history are there of women speaking out against assault and harassment?
Mary Frances Berry: Black women going public about rape is not new. Harriet Jacobs, in her 1861 autobiography, denounced her rape by her master. Ida B. Wells, in 1892, denounced the rape of Black women and girls by white men in her newspaper along with the lynching of Black men for false accusations of raping white females. Other Black women, including Anna Julia Cooper and Fannie Barrier Williams, also sounded the alarm. The files of the Justice Department and the NAACP contain complaints of the rape of Black women throughout the Jim Crow Era. Recy Taylor, like Harriet Jacobs, went public and spoke out about her own rape by six white men.
CC: What can we learn from this history as the #MeToo movement continues?
MFB: As egregious as the rape of Recy Taylor and others was, perpetrators escaped punishment. Conviction for rape has always been difficult to achieve. The most often used strategy for the defense is to tarnish the reputation of any woman who complains. Even with rape kits and identification evidence prosecution is still difficult, especially when rape kits are backlogged at police agencies and sometimes inexplicably lost.
Punishing perpetrators by job loss is one corrective. But as long as sexual attraction and unwanted sex is about power, and punishment remains elusive, we are likely to see rape and other non-consensual sex continue. In a sense, these issues are like race, generally—the United States’ original sin, the world’s original sin.
Also, having victims speak out is absolutely empowering, but we have to distinguish between rape and other non-consensual touching, between coercion and verbal harassment. Feminist lawyers should seriously consider due process questions and the relationship between workplace protections generally and sexual harassment issues. Otherwise, the movement will lose traction and the opportunity to make more permanent change in the employment opportunities of women
CC: What do you think about Oprah Winfrey honoring Recy Taylor in her Golden Globes speech?
MFB: Oprah Winfrey’s acknowledgement of Recy Taylor was important, because it gives historical and racial context to the movement by a person and a forum that got real attention.
CC: Why do you think it’s important for us to pay attention to Recy Taylor’s story now, especially in our current political climate?
MFB: It also expands the discussion from celebrities and movie stars to ordinary women. Ordinary women in low-wage jobs—whether in restaurants or household work or factories—and in poor communities are most at risk from coercion and unwanted sexual attention.
About Mary Frances Berry
Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Society for Legal History, the author of twelve books, and the recipient of thirty-five honorary degrees. Dr. Berry has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, Tavis Smiley, PBS NewsHour, CBS Evening News, Al Jazeera America News, and various MSNBC and CNN shows. Her forthcoming book, History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times, will be released in March 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @.