In 1988, the Tawana Brawley case was known to every household in America. “Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old African-American girl from the New York City area, was said to have been abducted and repeatedly raped by six white men,” the New York Times explained. “She was found with “KKK” written across her chest, a racial epithet on her stomach and her hair smeared with feces. She was so traumatized, according to reports, that at the hospital she answered yes-or-no questions by blinking her eyes. Making the crime even more vile, if that were possible, she and her lawyers later claimed that two of the rapists were law enforcement officials.”
It was a brutal, disturbing case and with Reverand Al Sharpton as a charismatic and persuasive spokesperson, it was one that resonated across the country. But as the months went on, things became more complicated — and questions were raised. You can see the way the case unfolded as the New York Times looks back in this Retro Report video:
One of the most horrific attacks in America — all a hoax? It’s hard to imagine, hard to stomach, especially when you look at the already strained relationships of the time. But often real inequalities and social injustices can, unfortunately, give rise to false claims. But why did she do it? Well, archival footage of Tawana Brawley doesn’t give us answers. “What did I lie about?” she says. “Lie about what? The grand jury to me didn’t really exist — that was all a farce.” Maybe that was all it was.