Can you imagine being accused of rape? Ok, maybe you can because it still happens. Race, Gender, and Lies are usually at the foundation of such accusation but if you are a white woman the result is guilty. There have been countless cases but none more infamous than the case of the Alabama teens that came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys.
The Scottsboro case crystallized black support in the 1930s, more than any other event, in spite of the countless lynchings of black men for amusement. This is what happened; nine black teens were accused of raping two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, on a freight train near Paint Rock, Alabama basically because they said so, which was a lie.
The nine young black men were Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Andy and Roy Wright, Eugene Williams, ages thirteen to twenty-one, were arrested on March 25, 1931, tried without adequate counsel, and hastily convicted on the basis of shallow evidence. All but Roy Wright were sentenced to death.
Already in the midst of a mass anti-lynching campaign begun a year earlier, the International Labor Defense (ILD) gained the confidence of the defendants and their parents, initiated a legal and political campaign for their freedom, and in the process waged a vicious battle for control over the case with the NAACP, who accused the Communists of using the young men for propaganda purposes.
The Scottsboro case was not simply an isolated instance of injustice. Rather a common manifestation of national oppression and class rule in the South. Maintaining that a fair and impartial trial was impossible, the defense, such as it was, and its auxiliaries publicized the case widely in order to apply mass pressure on the Alabama justice system. Protests erupted throughout the country and as far away as Paris, Moscow, and South Africa, and the governor of Alabama was bombarded with telegrams, postcards and letters demanding the immediate release of the “Scottsboro Boys.”
More shocking, as the southern racist would cry freedom and liberty, the “Scottsboro Boys” were denied the right of counsel. Because of public pressure the teens got a new trial, which opened on March 27, 1933. In this case the ILD had retained renowned criminal lawyer Samuel Leibowitz.
More significant, a month before the trial date Ruby Bates repudiated the rape charge. Yet, despite new evidence and a brilliant defense, the all-white jury still found the Scottsboro defendants guilty; a verdict that seemed to buttress the Communists’ interpretation of justice under capitalism and how it applies to the black community.
In fact, pressure from black militants and some sympathetic clergy and middle-class spokesmen compelled the virulently anticommunist NAACP secretary, Walter White, to develop a working relationship with the ILD in the spring of 1933. Several months later, however, in an unprecedented decision, Alabama circuit Judge James E. Horton overturned the March 1933 verdict and ordered a new trial.
Following a number of incredibly foolish legal and ethical mistakes, including an attempt to bribe Victoria Price, star lawyer Samuel Leibowitz separated from the ILD. With support of conservative black leaders, white liberals, and clergymen, Leibowitz founded the American Scottsboro Committee (ASC) in 1934.
In a tenuous alliance the ILD, ASC, NAACP, and ACLU, formed the Scottsboro Defense Committee, which opted for a more reformist, legally oriented campaign in lieu of mass tactics. After failing to win the defendants’ release in a 1936 trial, the SDC agreed to a strange plea bargain in 1937 whereby four defendants were released and the remaining five endured lengthy prison sentences. The last defendant was not freed until 1950.
Although the ILD did not win the defendants’ unconditional release, its campaign to “Free the Scottsboro Boys” had tremendous legal and political implications during the early 1930s. For example, in one of the ILD’s many appeals, a 1935 U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the defendant’s constitutional rights were violated because blacks were systematically excluded from the jury. Moreover, the realization that limited mass interracial action was possible challenged traditional liberalism and the politics of racial accommodation; the often scorned tactics of “mass pressure” would eventually be a precedent for civil rights activity two decades later.
Like Mississippi who 150 years after the Civil War came to terms with the reality that it was fought and won, and they lost. A resolution labels the Scottsboro Boys as “victims of a series of gross injustice” and declares them exonerated. A companion bill gives the state parole board the power to issue posthumous pardons. Alabama is trying to exonerate them for the in justice of this famous case from the segregated South that some consider the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
Long overdue but this is still the American South and this attempt may well be a smoke screen or justice denied. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…