THE SCOTTSBORO CASE (1931)

 

[In 1931, in Scottsboro, Alabama, a group of black boys between the age of ten and thirteen were arrested on charges that they had raped two white women.  The case would serve as the inspiration for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.]

 

A few days after the arrest the defendants were returned to Scottsboro, indicted on charges of rape, and in the minimum time allowed under the law were placed on trial. National Guardsmen with drawn bayonets, tear-gas bombs, and machine guns made the antiquated Jackson County courthouse appear like a fortified position in an advanced battle zone. More than ten thousand whites, many of them making no effort to conceal weapons, jammed the courthouse grounds and the streets of the sleepy little town of fifteen hun­dred population….

 

Victoria Price was put on the stand. Jauntily she told in great detail, obviously loving every minute of the rapt attention accorded her, of the six mythical criminal assaults she had undergone. Ruby Bate: followed her on the stand. Less of an ex­trovert and obviously more reluctant to tell the lies she had been coached to tell, she however corroborated sufficiently the lurid recital of the flamboyant Victoria Price to insure the sentencing to death of eight of the defendants and to life imprisonment of the ninth. The prosecutor asked only for life imprisonment for him because he had “celebrated” his fourteenth birthday in jail as he awaited trial.

 

It is certain that convictions were in­evitable in that atmosphere. But if there had been any slightest chance of a fair trial, that chance went glimmering when Judge Hawkins revealed that he had re­ceived a telegram from a Communist organization in New York City, the International Labor Defense, asserting that he as presiding judge would be held per­sonally responsible unless the nine defendants were immediately released....

 

The defendants and their parents and guardians together presented one of the most damning indications of Southern race prejudice I have ever seen--all of them had been given little education and had been ground by poverty and bigotry all their lives. It was an exciting new experience for them to be addressed as “Mister” or “Missus” and to be treated by white people as human beings on a plane of equality which they had never known before from the “good, white, hundred per cent Americans” of their native South.

 

When, by various means, the defendants and their parents and guardians be­came convinced that the ILD was the organization which they wished to defend them, there was no alternative left except for the NAACP to withdraw from the case, making public its reasons for so doing, with an itemized accounting of moneys raised and expended in the case.

 

In control of the case, the Communists proceeded to publicize and agitate it in every part of the world. Public meetings of the NAACP were particularly the target of the campaign. A favorite device was to announce in such a meeting that one of the Scottsboro mothers was present and demanded the right to speak. If permission was granted, a Communist would make a lengthy introduction expounding the merits of Communism. If permission were denied, at a prearranged signal Communists in the audience or their sympathizers would join in a shout de­manding that the mother be heard. There were only five living “mothers” of the nine defendants, but many more than five “mothers” were produced in various parts of the country at public gatherings. In one instance a colored woman presented as a Scottsboro mother had lived for more than twenty years in the Northern city in which she spoke. All this apparently was based upon strategy at that time being followed by Communists throughout the world, namely, to attempt to organ­ize with greatest vigor among the most exploited and oppressed group in each “capitalist” country as the most fertile soil for revolutionary propaganda. It will be remembered that the Scottsboro case came two years after the stock market collapse of 1929 and as America moved into the most serious economic depression it had ever known.