When Oprah Winfrey invoked the name of Recy Taylor in her Golden Globe Awards speech, it sent many scurrying to the Internet last month to find out who Taylor was.
It wasn’t long before Taylor’s story was trending — the story of a woman who refused to remain silent after being kidnapped and gang-raped by six white men in Abbeville, Ala. on Sept. 3, 1944.
Many historians and civil rights activists wish that kind of concerted effort to learn black history existed beyond this month, or beyond the seismic activity which only Oprah could spark.
“The book industry is changing. Everything now is on the Internet, but there are a lot of marginalized people who don’t have access unless they come to the library,” said Beverly Cook, senior archivist at the Chicago Public Library’s renowned Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection.
“When they do come to use the computer, it’s for a job search … not for research and looking up folks,” Cook said.
The Harsh collection, the Midwest’s largest repository of African-American history and literature, is housed at Woodson Regional Library in the Beverly neighborhood. Woodson re-opened last weekend after 15 months of building renovations.
“We can talk to some 20-year-olds today, and they don’t even know what Bloody Sunday was,” Cook said. “And sorry, many of our children don’t even know who Rosa Parks is. So in that sense our history gets lost, or re-scripted. Because, in fact, Rosa Parks was not the first person considered as a figurehead for the movement. It was Claudette Colvin, but she didn’t project the right image.”
Colvin, now 78, was 15 when she was arrested on March 5, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala. That was nine months before Parks’ famous arrest. But while Colvin was among four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle — the federal lawsuit that ended bus segregation — the NAACP felt the elderly Parks presented a better test case.
The “re-scripting” doesn’t end there. Parks’ back story — she was a longtime NAACP investigator and activist against sexual assaults on black women — is frequently omitted, though it intertwines with the stories of both Colvin and Taylor. Taylor died on Dec. 28, at age 97.
Parks had been assigned to Taylor’s case by the NAACP, forming the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for the young mother. The group gained national support, including from labor unions, and chapters sprung up across the U.S.; prominent members included W.E.B. DuBois, John Sengstacke, and Langston Hughes.
“Rosa Parks was a hard-core civil rights activist, so why are we told that she was a tired old lady on a bus? She was a boss!” Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge says in a Black History Month digital short that’s part of PBS’ “Origin Of Everything.” The new series explores the idea that the past is always present.
“The story of Rosa Parks as taught in many schools and spoken about in the media is usually truncated to a very specific set of biographical details. But while that narrative presents some key details of the story, it also distorts or eliminates others,” complains narrator Bainbridge. “The result is a massive simplification of Parks’ years of activism on behalf of the NAACP, her advocacy for black women sexual assault survivors, and a lifetime of work that extended far beyond the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.”
Rainbow PUSH President Rev. Jesse Jackson agreed.
“I asked Rosa Parks once why she didn’t just give up her seat. The driver could have thrown her under the bus — literally — and nothing would have happened to him. She could have been beaten by the policeman. She told me that as the driver loomed over her, demanding she get up, she thought about 14-year-old Emmett Till and how he looked in his casket and the anguish in his mother’s face,” he said. “She wasn’t just a seamstress with tired feet as some have tried to portray and diminish her. Parks was a lifelong civil rights activist and patriot who made this country better.”
Due to Parks and the NAACP’s activism, the state of Alabama intervened in Taylor’s case, but ultimately, it was dismissed by two all-white male juries. In 2011, Taylor received an apology from Alabama for “failing to prosecute the crimes.”
Stories of these three women, and others who changed history, can be found at the re-opened and expanded Harsh collection. In that collection, one also can find the papers of Ben Burns, who helped found Ebony Magazine; his papers include some of the work of Lerone Bennett, the Ebony Magazine editor who died Feb. 14 and whose funeral is Saturday.
“A lot of people say, ‘Do we still need Black History Month? Yes!” said Cook. “I personally feel Black History should be studied every day of the year, but I don’t want to give up February, and celebrating all those people who fought and died to have a voice.”