In 1931, nine young African-American men were accused of raping two white women in northern Alabama while traveling on a train from Chattanooga to Memphis, Tennessee. The young men—Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, Andy Wright, and Roy Wright—were innocent. Saved from a mob lynching, they nonetheless endured a series of unfair trials over seven years; eight received death sentences. (Roy Wright, just turned thirteen, was held in limbo until 1937 because of his youth.) Embraced by the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) as well as a broad collection of left-wing organizations and artists, the fight for the young men’s lives became an international movement. Their defense was eventually paid for by the CPUSA and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and taken on by Samuel Liebowitz, a celebrated criminal attorney whose Judaism invited vicious anti-Semitism from white southerners. Their case led to two landmark Supreme Court case rulings regarding due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment: Powell v. Alabama (1932) reversed the defendants’ convictions based on inadequate counsel, while Norris v. Alabama (1935) established that officials in Alabama had violated the defendants’ constitutional rights by excluding black Alabamans from juries. Over the course of the trials, the two accusers—Ruby Bates and Victoria Price—were celebrated as the epitome of southern white womanhood and then maligned as lying “white trash” harlots. That Bates later recanted and campaigned for the defendants’ freedom did little to earn her full personhood in the received history. The “Scottsboro Boys” spent years, some more than a decade, in America’s worst prisons and suffered physical and psychological damage that would prove irreparable. Five of the defendants were released when the prosecution chose not to proceed with their cases in 1937, though this nolle prosequi decision was not an acquittal, exoneration, or apology. The last to remain in jail, Andy Wright, was released in 1950. Alabama Governor George Wallace pardoned the last living Scottsboro defendant, Clarence Norris, in 1976. Finally, in April 2013, Alabama changed its law to allow posthumous pardons, and the remaining three defendants were officially pardoned that November. The Scottsboro case is a crucial part of the histories of African Americans, the US South, race and gender in the 20th-century United States, the transnational modern civil rights and labor movements, the Great Depression, and the US justice system.
The Scottsboro case is special historiographically in that it is the subject of two superb but very different monographs. Carter 1969 was the first major study of the case, won the Bancroft Prize in American History, and still stands as the most comprehensive and straight-forward narrative. Goodman 1995 brings new insight to the case through updated primary research and an innovative narrative structure that privileges perspective over the conventional authoritative historian’s voice. Taken together, the two texts reflect the best in historical research, in making meaning of the past, and in storytelling. Anker and Goodman 2001 borrows heavily from both Carter and Goodman to bring the story to documentary film. Images from the trials offer a visually compelling pastiche, though the film’s conclusion—that “time and time alone” resolved the Scottsboro case constitutes a frustrating denial of the human effort and the toll involved.
Anker, Daniel, and Barak Goodman. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy. WGBH Boston. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, 2001.
Fine visual portrayal of the case. Features interviews with leading historians and descendants of witnesses. Foreshortens the story in typical ways for a documentary film.
Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Beautifully written and engrossing. A straightforward telling of the story of the trials and their meaning in US history. Dated in some terminology but holds up remarkably well.
Goodman, James. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Vivid exploration of the case through carefully wrought depictions of the perspectives and experiences of key figures. Rewards invested readers but sometimes frustrates those looking for a linear chronological telling.
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