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Essay: Alabama Voted. Want to Thank Black Women? Here’s How

Black voters in Alabama, specifically black women, are being given the credit for Doug Jones’ victory squeaker last night.

There will be many opportunities for Senator-elect Jones and other Alabama legislators to thank them going forward.

Here are a few, off the top of my head: Do something about their maternal death rate and protect them from intimate partner violence, both of which are alarmingly high in your state. Your infant mortality rate jumped dramatically last year, and the death rate of African American babies is twice that of white ones. Could you look into that? End disproportionate punishment of their black kids in school. Make it easier for them to vote. Maybe tackle workplace safety, equal pay and sexual harassment, particularly in low wage service jobs. Invest in their startups.

Here’s another. Ask them what they need, because they know. Remember that many of the black voters who are being celebrated today come from a long line of women who have always looked out for others, even when the favor wasn’t returned.

Here’s one memorable example, which will hopefully be coming to a theater near you soon.

In September, 1944, a young mother named Recy Taylor was abducted while walking home from a church revival in rural Abbeville, Alabama. Next came a sedan filled with seven men. A desperate drive to a secluded pine grove. A brutal gang-rape perpetrated by six of them. Taylor was told they’d return and do worse if she told anyone. First, she told her father. And then she told everyone.

Her case went to a grand jury twice, but when charges were never filed, the NAACP office in Montgomery sent their best investigator out to find out why. Her name was Rosa Parks.

Long before she was famous for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks was a trained NAACP investigator and led a national campaign to stop sexual assaults against black women, which was a persistent experience in the violent Jim Crow South.

This remarkable story is the subject of a new documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor, by filmmaker Nancy Buirski. The film has gotten mixed reviews, more for Buirski’s shortcomings as a journalist, rather than the importance of the subject. “It would have been better for the world if this movie had been made decades ago, because the facts that are brought out in Buirski’s film are—and ought to be known as—a constant and inextricable correlate to African-Americans’ ongoing and frustrated quest for civil rights,” says The New Yorker’s Richard Brody.

You can watch the trailer here.

The story is far from over, at least for Taylor’s family. In 2011, the Alabama Legislature issued a formal apology for its “morally abhorrent and repugnant” failure to prosecute Taylor’s case. “I find myself getting nervous talking about it too much because it gets me disturbed thinking about what happened,” Taylor told The Root. “But I felt good over the apology.”

But when Danielle McGuire, a white historian of racial and sexual violence recently visited Taylor at her younger brother’s home to interview her for her doctoral dissertation, she found a family still in search of answers.

McGuire brought boxes of her research, including copies of the state’s original investigation along with archival newspaper accounts and letters of support for Taylor, all material the family had never seen and had spent decades searching for.

“The box contained evidence of both the original crime against Taylor and the state’s efforts to dismiss, diminish and disappear her victimization,” she said. She presented the case in front of Taylor and her siblings, her nieces, nephews and their children. “It was a multi-generation tribunal ready to bear witness,” she said.

The crimes of the past do not stay buried. They fester and boil and rot everything from underneath, and all too often are spackled over into systems that do more harm than good. In this way, the truly beautiful state of Alabama is not an exception, nor is it exceptional. But every step forward toward sunlight and inclusion is a step in the right direction. Sweet home and blue skies, indeed.

So yes, by all means, thank black women. But also make sure they have seats at the leaders’ table.


Ellen McGirt is a senior editor at Fortune, and writes raceAhead, a daily newsletter about race and culture.