The Scottsboro case was a miscarriage of justice in the 1930s that is primarily important because the Communist Party seized on it to recruit black members on charges that America was inherently racist, much to the annoyance of the NAACP and legitimate civil rights leaders who were trying to save the defendants from the death penalty.
The Scottsboro incident of 1931 involved nine young black youth aged 13 to 19; they were convicted of raping two white women on a freight train on its way through Alabama on the basis of very scanty evidence. A sheriff's posse stopped the freight train because of reports black youths had assaulted several white young men on that same train earlier in the day. All were part of the growing teenage hobo culture during the Great Depression and rode the trains in search of work or adventure. Within hours, two white women among the freight riders also accused the black prisoners of gang rape. The governor sent in the National Guard to prevent a lynching, but angry white mobs surrounded the courthouse every day. The nine were indicted and tried in April, 1931, in three groups, each trial being completed in a single day. The juries found the defendants guilty and imposed the death penalty on all. The chief testimony was given by the two women; since they had traded sexual favors with the whites on the train for food, they were liable to arrest for vagrancy if they did not give the testimony the court wanted. One explained to the press, "Those Negroes Have Ruined Me and Ruby Forever."
On appeal to the Supreme Court the civil rights lawyers argued that defendants (1) had been denied the right to counsel; (2) had not been given a fair and impartial trial; and (3) had been tried before juries from which blacks were systematically excluded. They argued that these allegations constituted a denial of due process of law and equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment.
Speaking for a majority of seven in Powell v. Alabama (1932), Justice George Sutherland declared that the Alabama trial court had failed to give the defendants reasonable time to secure counsel, which was a denial of due process.
The Supreme Court ordered new trials. Along the way the case again went to the Supreme Court which in Norris v. Alabama (1935), overturned convictions and ordered new trials because the state excluded African Americans from juries. The final result was lengthy prison sentences for four of the defendants; the dismissal of rape charges for five, a prison term for unrelated charges for one, and the release of four after they had languished in jail for six years. The last defendant was released from prison in 1950. Finally in 1976 Alabama Governor George Wallace pardoned all the defendants.
The Supreme Court decisions helped establish the federal constitutional right to counsel in all state criminal cases, because it is inherent in due process, and the illegality of systematically excluding blacks from juries.
In 1928 the 6th Congress of the Comintern in Moscow, under Stalin's control, resolved that the black population of the American South was a subject nation, thus capable of engendering a 'national revolutionary movement,' and ordered the American party to give work on the "Negro question" high priority. The party found in the Scottsboro case an ideal vehicle for worldwide propaganda as well as a recruiting tool in the ghettos of northern cities. Many more militant blacks, some of high stature and renown, embraced the Communist party, and all the attendant consequences. The party was found to be a conspiracy advocating the violent overthrow the United States government by force and controlled by a hostile foreign power.
The International Labor Defense—an officially non-Communist organization controlled by the Party took control of the men's defense, forcing out the NAACP. While the heavy lifting for the Scottsboro defendants was done by the ACLU and NAACP, the Communist Party tried to claim that it, virtually alone, defended them, attacking any groups that refused to accept “unity” under the Communists. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins would write in 1949:
|“||We remember that in the Scottsboro case, the NAACP was subjected to the most unprincipled vilification. We remember the campaign of slander in the Daily Worker. We remember the leaflets and the speakers and the whole unspeakable machinery that was turned loose upon all those who did not embrace the "unity" policy as announced by the communists.||”|
Samuel Liebowitz, defense attorney for the Scottsboro defendants, revealed to African-American journalist George Schuyler that the CPUSA had exploited their case to raise $250,000 (equivalent to more than $4.3 million today), but contributed only $12,000 (less than 5 percent) to their defense.
In fact, the CPUSA's role in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys was a minor one, at once cynical and venal. Manning Johnson, an African-American former member of the National Committee of the Communist Party and of its “National Negro Commission,” testified:
|“||We were constantly told by James W. Ford [Special Organizer of the Communist Party's Harlem section] and others that we were not interested in saving the lives of the "damn" Scottsboro boys; that we were interested in using the Scottsboro case to penetrate Negro churches and civic organizations which we could not reach except for a cause of that kind, and in the course of the development of this campaign to raise the slogans of the Communist Party, and during our contacts with these large masses of Negroes to seek out the best elements among them and recruit them into the party.||”|
In this respect, the Communist exploitation of the Scottsboro case was successful. Just as the party's exploitation of Sacco and Vanzetti had attracted into the Communist orbit such future Soviet agents as Alger Hiss and Noel Field, so the Scottsboro case would attract such future African-American Communists as Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis and Frank Marshall Davis.
In the North, liberal and radical artists created paintings and poems that depicted a racist South, where white men dominated blacks and white women with the illegitimate use of violence and arbitrary power.
Paintings, drawings, and sculptures highlighted the suffering of lynching victims and the hypocritical Christianity of the perpetrators. Artists used their work to elicit sympathy for the accused and to convince Americans of the necessity of federal anti-lynching legislation. Published reports consistently cited blacks were being lynched at the rate of about one every three weeks in the South in the 1930s, and the New Deal depended on the votes of the white South. President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to break up his coalition on the issue.
The literature of the 1930s was basically far-left in approach, as illustrated by Langston Hughes' play, Scottsboro Limited, and John Wexley's play They Shall Not Die. During the Cold War writers depicted the Communists, not the system, as responsible for the injustices done to the black youths, illustrated in Don Mankiewicz's novel The Trial.
Alabama whites at the time perceived blacks, regardless of wealth or education, as lacking integrity and self-control and thus prone to criminal behavior. This pervasive mindset contributed to the belief that African Americans should not serve on juries and that the nine young men must surely be guilty notwithstanding evidence to the contrary.
- Acker, James R. Scottsboro and Its Legacy: The Cases That Challenged American Legal and Social Justice. (2007)
- Gilbert Jonas, Freedom's Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969 (Routledge, 2005) ISBN 1135930880, p. 144
- CPI Inflation Calculator, United States Bureau of Labor Statistics
- George Samuel Schuyler, Black and Conservative: The Autobiography of George S. Schuyler (Arlington House, 1966), p. 190
- United States. Congress. House. Committee on Un-American Activities, Testimony of Manning Johnson, Hearings Regarding Communist Infiltration of Minority Groups Part II, July 14, 1949 (United States Government Printing Office, 1949), p. 506