Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Riding toward a lynching on a southbound train


The Scottsboro trial opens: April 1931

Riding the 'Bama train


In honor of my father, Arthur M. Moritz (1897-1991),
a German-Jewish New York lawyer, a "WWI socialist"
who made it a point to sit in the "colored section"
when riding southern railroads

"Let justice be done
though the heavens may fall"

--Judge James E. Horton

Railroads have carried America from past to future.

Sometimes through the darkest tunnels of life.

It was on the southbound Alabama freight train from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Huntsville, Alabama that it all began -- the attempted 1931 legal lynching of the nine "Scottsboro Boys."

A series of trials which became a foundation of the modern civil rights movement.

A dark, dark time when both impoverished blacks and whites were pawns in the battle between southern racists and northern Marxists.

It took twenty more years before the black civil rights movement could break free from dependence on northern benefactors -- and chart its own course in a "new South."

Let us go back to a time when nine black "boys" aged 13 to 19 were accused of raping two white women on a slow freight from Tennessee to Alabama.

The prosecution sought the electric chair.

Nine black "hoboes" accused of volating the most sacred southern taboo: black men raping white women.

A seedy, tabloidy, tawdry case about race, sex, and lynching.

About teenage "hoboes" -- workers and prostitutes -- black, white, men, and women.

Smudged in soot, dirty with hunger, "riding the rails" in gravel filled cars, in search of work in depression stricken America.

Fighting (and fornicating?) aboard a slow moving freight.

A case which underlined the age-old truth:

"If you treat people like animals, they may behave that way."

Lest we forget, lest we forget: the fruits of past savagery die a slow, slow death.

Moscow's Joseph Stalin: courting

A case about how the poor and lowly of both races were used, abused, and exploited for many a purpose.

A case that drew local, national, and international attention.

Where southern politicians sought political hay -- while Joseph Stalin's American and Russian Marxists used the trials to recruit black and whites toward revolution.

(See an extensive online research project on the "Scottsboro Boys," part of the "Famous American Trials Series," by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Examine primary resources from the PBS documentary: "An American Tragedy: the Scottsboro Boys.")

This, then, was the trial of the "Scottsboro Boys."

While the defendants escaped the death penalty, they spent years in brutal Alabama prisons -- caged like animals who must embrace savagery to survive.

Nine black defendents were humiliated pawns in a battle between southern white mobs and northern left-wing white activists -- whose support kept them alive.

Indeed the trials of the "Scottsboro Boys" tells as much about whites as about blacks.

About the darkest days of hatred and poverty in Depression era America. When life was cheap and brutality accepted as business as usual.

The trial of the "Scottsboro Boys" demonstrated how legalized "terror" against blacks was sometimes used to maintain order just seventy years after the Civil War.

How the humiliations of impoverished whites could be exploited by politicians and activists of many stripes.

It also illustrated that "white institutions" such as the U.S. Supreme Court were beginning to stir in a way which would ultimately advance civil rights.

It took two more decades for southern blacks to proudly launch and lead their own movement.

Rosa Parks and others, including Martin Luther King, began a self-sustained Afro-American protest campaign with the 1954 Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott.

The Scottsboro case had as one of its many lessons: it was as important for the civil rights movement to be free from the northern white Left as from the southern racist Right.

So what did 'Bama born Hank Williams think of the "Scottsboro Boys?"

Hard to say. He was only ten.

"The midnight train is whining low,
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

I've never seen a night so long

When time goes crawling by.

The moon just went behind a cloud

To hide its face and cry.

Times have changed since 1931 -- and so have trains.

From eighty years ago, when the modern American civil rights movement began with the trial of the "Scottsboro Boys."

Tracking a train
(Click to enlarge)

Hoboes were men and women of both races who rode freight trains in search of scarce work.

The tradition went back to at least the early 1900's.

Thousands of black and white teenagers took to the rails during the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939.

(For more detailed accounts, see Teenage Hoboes in the Great Depression)

Nine "Negro boys," ages 12 to 19, were the hoboes on trial for their lives.

On charges of raping two poor white homeless women mill workers, also hoboes, on a freight train from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Huntsville, Alabama.

A posse of some 50 armed whites first arrested the "Negroes" at the rail line near Paint Rock, Alabama -- after complaints the blacks had kicked a group of white hoboes off the train.

Rape charges followed -- after two women were found on the train.

A national spotlight descended on southern poverty, lynch mob mentality, and the rough mannered ways of the unlady-like alleged victims.

The two "victims" were variously described as impoverished homeless job seeking mill workers -- or prostitutes plying their trade to "Negro" men.

Most likely they were both.

These apparently were not "Scarlett O'hara's" embodying the finest virtues of the "Confederate Woman."

They were tough women, seasoned to survive.

Were they raped? Medical testimony cast doubt on the claim.

One of them, Ruby Bates, withdrew her charges -- and ended up demonstrating with the mothers of the defendants -- and "leading" a protest group to the gates of the White House.

Bates moved into a new life in the employ of left-wing labor groups in the North.

See a chronology of the case.

See an extensive Wikipedia essay on the case.

Hoboes ride the freight in search of work

And then there was the controversy of a rising American Communist Party taking on the civil rights cause.

Under the instruction of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet dominated international Comintern, American communists targeted black Americans as a separate nationality which could be mobilized for political action.

The communist dominated International Labor Defense (ILD) edged out the National Association of Coloured People (NAACP), which favored a more legalistic Scottsboro defense.

Scottsboro was for the communists test of whether large numbers of American blacks could be mobilized for communist purposes by defending blacks under attack.

Song by Jewish New York high school teacher,
communist Abel Meerpol

Then there were those liberal New York Jews and liberal New York Protestant clergymen -- "outside agitators" inserting themselves into the affairs of the unwelcoming South.

Many were deeply committed, horrified by the brutality they saw in the widespread lynchings of their day.

For some American Jews lynchings were painful reminders of anti-Jewish pograms back in Europe.

For some the promise of a new society in Soviet Russia seemed preferable to the cruelties they saw in their own country.

Others were locked in competition with the communists to lead social movements of their day.

In 1934 Stalin adopted his "united front" -- and left behind the "ultra-left" approach.

American communists were urged to tone down their activities in favor of co-operation with President Roosevelt against the growing threat of Nazi fascism.

Still, during the many trials of the "Scottsboro Boys," Jews, New Yorkers, and communists were like "oil and water" in the "Old South."

Alabama authorities were committed to convict "Negro" defendants. But they worked hard to prevent embarassing lynchings or assassinations of outsiders intervening in behalf of the "Scottsboro Boys."

See biographies of key figures.

Download in .pdf file an indepth study in the
Dartmouth Law Review on the role of Judge James E. Horton in overturning the second conviction and death sentence of Hayward Patterson.

For defenders of the "Scottsboro Boys," Judge Horton emerged as a hero of the cases. See a dramatic and detailed


Hayward Patterson: arrested at age 18;
in jail until his death of cancer in 1952
at age 39

"Let justice be done
though the heavens may fall"
--Judge James E. Horton

"His decision made me feel good.
I saw that there could be white folks
in the South with the right mind.”

--Hayward Patterson


Numerous trial verdicts rejected the death penalty.

With historic precedents, the U.S. Supreme intervened to overrule some verdicts on grounds defendants were deprived of legal counsel and tried by juries from which blacks had been excluded.

Still eight of the nine defendents served six to 19 years in prison.

In 1976 Governor George Wallace pardoned Clarence Norris, the last of the defendents still subject to Alabama law.

Norris, the last surviving "Scottsboro Boy," died in New York City in 1989 at age 76.

Victoria Price, 21, and Ruby Bates, 17, in 1931:
both homeless "mill girls" from Huntsville.
Detractors said they were prostitutes


During the early trials the American Communist Party had largely taken over the defense.

It hired the prominent non-communist New York Jewish defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz to take on the sexual emotions of Southern racism.

Defendents with
defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz

Ruby Bates, one of the two alleged victims often described as prostitutes, rallied to the defense side under the influence of famed New York liberal clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick.

She said rapes never took place.

Ruby Bates, turncoat
"reborn" in New York "finery "

Victoria Price: stuck to her story

A book brought it all back in 1970.

This healing shock which remembered the primitiveness of recent America was
Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, by historian Dan T. Carter.

A book reawakened the past

And now in the sleepy town of Scottsboro a new generation of citizens, politicians and activists raises money for a museum honoring this tragedy of the "Old South."

It is a case which darkened America -- but opened the door for the sunlight of a revitalized South.

In Scottsboro a new kind of train pulls into the station.

A new museum will honor the memory
of the "Scottsboro Boys"

A bumpy ride, a steady landing into
modern Scottsboro, Alabama
crossing the Tennessee River

The train is no longer the main way in.