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updated 3/21/2011 3:04:35 PM ET 2011-03-21T19:04:35

Black and white leaders from a rural southeast Alabama community apologized Monday to relatives of a black woman raped in 1944 by a gang of white men who escaped prosecution because of what officials described as police bungling and racism.

JoAnn Smith, who serves as both probate judge and commission chairman in Henry County, described what happened to Recy Taylor more than six decades ago as a miscarriage of justice. Speaking to the family, Smith said: "It is apparent that the system failed you in 1944."

"I can pray that things would be handled differently now than in the past," she said.

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Added Abbeville Mayor Ryan Blalock: "I want to relay to the family and to Miss Recy that the city loves you."

Smith and Blalock are white.

Now 91, Taylor was 24 and living in her native Henry County when she was gang-raped in Abbeville in 1944. The married woman was walking home from church when she was abducted, assaulted and left on the side of the road in an isolated area.

Two all-white, all-male grand juries declined to bring charges. State Rep. Dexter Grimsley of Newville, who is black, said police bungled the investigation and harassed Taylor.

Taylor told The Associated Press in an interview last year that she believes the men who attacked her are dead, but she would still like an apology from the state. The AP is using her name because she has publicly identified herself.

Her story, along with those of other black women attacked by white men during the civil rights era, is told in "At the Dark End of the Street," a book released last year. Activists including Rosa Parks took up their cause, but their efforts were later overshadowed by other civil rights battles.

Robert Corbitt, 74, said he would relay the apology to his sister, who lives in Florida and was unable to attend a meeting with area leaders.

"What happened to my sister way back then ... couldn't happen today," he said. "Boy, what a mess they made out of it. They tried to make her look like a whore and she was a Christian lady."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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