Inspired by Injustice: Scottsboro in History

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Bill V. Mullen

Remembering Scottsboro:
The Legacy of an Infamous Trial
By James A. Miller
Princeton University Press, 280 pages, $27.95 paperback.

“IN MANY RESPECTS this is an archival project,” writes James A. Miller, Chair of the American Studies Department at George Washington University, at the end of his introduction to Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial.

“My purpose has not been primarily to appeal to a sense of retrospective indignation about a particularly sordid episode in twentieth-century American racial history…but to explore the ways in which the shifting lexicon surrounding the Scottsboro case sheds light upon shifting and enduring American attitudes towards race and justice.”

In most every facet of this task he succeeds. Miller’s book uses an exceptional range of primary source materials, from court transcripts and letters to poetic, filmic and novelist renderings of the Scottsboro case, both to burn away the accreted mythification of Scottsboro and to produce a Rashomon-like rendering of the event as a enduring template of American racism, radical politics and cultural production.

The Scottsboro case, in raw outline, was the March, 1931 accusation of rape against nine working-class African-American young men traveling by freight train from Stevenson, Alabama to Paint Rock, 20 miles from Scottsboro. The accused by name were: Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Ozie Powell, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, Roy Wright and Haywood Patterson. In age they ranged from 19 to 12.

The accusers, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, were themselves working-class and white. After the initial charge of rape, Bates recanted her testimony and publically joined the public campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys. Despite this, the nine were alternately convicted by all-white juries, jailed, sentenced to death, retried, separately released, and imprisoned again over a period that stretched until 1952, when Haywood Patterson, the most notorious of the Scottsboro Boys, died in a Michigan Prison.

From the day of their arrests, the Scottsboro Boys became avatars of heinous racist hysteria, icons of African-American disenfranchisement and symbols for the American Left, especially the Communist Party, of the brutal victimization of the Black working class, and for racial activists of a wide stripe as well as the media. At the same time, they became the strange muse for writers, poets, filmmakers and others trying to wed social commentary to culture, and to forge something like a radical racial aesthetic from the case.

Miller carefully, methodically weeds through these elements in chapters arranged like case studies, beginning with his best, and most aptly titled Chapter One, “Framing the Scottsboro Boys.” The title’s double meaning suggests the multiple conceptions of “justice” sought by three hostile and competing forces around the case: the Alabama National Guard and legal system; the Communist Party and International Labor Defense which first came to their legal aid, and the National Association for the Advancement of Color People, which first offered then withdrew its own legal support for the Boys.

Miller also “frames” the Boys themselves in this chapter, excerpting painful, conflicted, often agonizing letters written by the imprisoned nine as they tried to interpret for themselves the personal and political meaning of their arrests.

Most significant for scholars of the Scottsboro Case is Miller’s recitation of primary, internal documents of both the Communist Party and NAACP disclosing their competing strategies for controlling the Scottsboro case and publicity.

For example, Miller cites correspondence between Tom Johnson, the CP district organizer in Chattanooga, and the CP Central Committee in New York debating tactics for the defense. Johnson objected to the Central Committee’s demand for a “New Trial” before a mixed race jury, arguing that the demand, as Miller writes, “flew in the face of local and regional realities.”

“A jury…will be picked in a capitalist court right on the edge of the black belt where racial antagonisms incited by the ruling class are the sharpest,” wrote Johnson. “You may be sure, and the Negro masses with also quite well realize, that any whites, workers or otherwise, selected for such a jury under local conditions will be white chauvinists and will vote for conviction.”

Miller also demonstrates how the CP’s immediate characterization of the trial as a “legal lynching” as early as its April 10, 1931 Daily Worker headline (supplemented by Labor Defender covers that same year of a Black man in a noose) “quickly gained ascendancy” as the dominant “narrative” of Scottsboro, resonating down through history as a pliable trope used by figures as diverse as Richard Wright to characterize Bigger Thomas’s plight in his 1940 novel Native Son, and supporters of O.J. Simpson describing LA Detective Mark Fuhrman’s role in that infamous murder trial.

Meanwhile, Walter White and NAACP field secretary William Pickens, according to Miller, “devoted considerably more time and energy to thwart the Communists than they did in cultivating relationships of trust and respect with the Scottsboro families.”  Miller cites correspondence from Pickens referring to the parents of Scottsboro defendant Haywood Patterson as “dumb cattle…hopelessly entrapped.”

White, meanwhile, remained rigid in his determination that the CP’s motives were sinister, self-serving and anti-American. In a letter to Claude Patterson, Haywood’s father, White wrote: “The Communists, through their International Labor Defense, are seeking to make propaganda for their cause through these cases. Some of the leaders of that movement have even gone so far as to admit frankly that their ultimate desire is to destroy the American government and if in doing that the life of your boy must be sacrificed, this will be done.” (35)

Miller’s political sympathies clearly shade towards the CP, but he posits the largest empathy for the Scottsboro Boys themselves, hinting throughout the book that the problem of their “legal” representation was manifested in the problem of their “self” representation. He cites for example a “composite” statement issued in their name, “To the Young Workers of the World,” distributed by the International Labor Defense: “We been sentenced to die for something we ain’t never done. Us poor boys have been sentenced to burn up on the electric chair for the reason that we is workers — and the color of our skin is black. We is none of us older than 20. Two of us is 14 and one is 13 years old.” (23)

Elsewhere, he cites letters of appeal for funding, and even love, from the Scottsboro Boys to supporters outside of prison, and in a brilliant, moving chapter on Haywood Patterson, who fled his Alabama prison, reads his co-authored 1950 memoir (with Earl Conrad) Scottsboro Boy, as a kind of non-fiction Native Son version of Haywood’s tragic rebel life.

Symbolism of the Struggle

The remainder of the book samples literary and artistic renderings of the Scottsboro Case. Miller ranges much farther than previous scholars in his compelling argument that Scottsboro was the most potent sign and symbol in mid-century U.S. culture of the problems of racism in the U.S. legal system.

Chapter 2, “The Writer as Witness,” offers an original and moving reading of Langston Hughes’s 1932 play “Scottsboro Limited,” and cites an essay published by Hughes in Opportunity after Hughes visited the defendants in Kilby Prison. Hughes writes that he “selected mostly my humorous poems to read to them, and I did not mention the South or their problems, because I did not know what to say that might be helpful.” (67)

Miller’s rendering suggests the conflicted role even committed artists played in translating politics to art. Miller also examines the three-section poem the much neglected Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser published in her first book Theory of Flight in 1935 after driving to Decatur, Alabama to report on the Scottsboro case for the left-wing magazine Student Review.

The book earned Rukeyser the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize that year, buttressing Miller’s argument that Scottsboro helped to elevate political literature to a mantle it had ironically never earned before the “legal lynching” in Alabama.

Miller’s chapters on theatrical and novelistic representations of Scottsboro are provocatively original in their excavation of sources. Miller provides the most in-depth reading of any recent scholar of John Wexley’s powerful play “They Shall Not Die,” first produced by the Theater Guild in New York on February 21, 1934. Much less acclaimed, and cited, than Hughes’s “Scottsboro Limited,” the play nonetheless drew more than 1000 Theater Guild subscribers to a symposium which featured Scottsboro defense counsels Samuel Leibowitz and Joseph Brodsky, author Wexley, William Patterson, representing the International Labor Defense, and Ruby Bates.

Miller’s discussion of “They Shall Not Die” deepens, anticipates and expands scholarly understanding of 1930s U.S. Leftist theater, which saw such other, more vaunted developments as the Worker’s Theater and later the Federal Theater Project.  It is not too much for example for readers of Miller’s book to begin to imagine a direct line between Scottsboro and Orson Welles’s anti-racist Federal Theater production of “Othello,” set in Haiti.

Indeed Miller draws out some of the international and internationalist drama of Scottsboro (the case was followed closely in France, the Soviet Union and elsewhere) by reading two historical novels, Guy Endore’s 1934 Babouk and and Arna Bontemps Black Thunder, as veiled allegories of Scottsboro.

Endore’s novel is a rousing account of African resistance to colonial slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, present-day Haiti. Miller reads the self-determination of Black struggle in the novel as a cautionary tale drawn from Scottsboro that whites should best serve as “sympathetic supports who embrace the historical and political logic of black nationalist insurgencies.”

Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 slave rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, inspired in part by the Haitian “Black Jacobins,” is the subject of Bontemps’s 1936 novel. Miller argues that Bontemps makes white male sexual violence against Black women an inverted “theme” of the Scottsboro trial, and centralizes questions of Black agency in the Prosser rebellion as a means of asking “how to account for the apparent silence of Alabama blacks in particular, and southern blacks in general, about the plight of the Scottsboro Boys” (139).

Scottsboro and the Cold War

Miller’s final two chapters engage the Scottsboro Case as a lingering symbol of both Cold War liberalism and Cold War anti-communism.  He takes up two fascinating example in particular: the Leftist novelist Grace Lumpkin, author of the proletarian standard 1930s classic To Make My Bread, and Harper Lee, author of the schoolroom classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

Miller argues persuasively that Lumpkin and Lee, raised in pre-World War II South Carolina and Alabama respectively, nurtured their memories of Scottsboro into radically disparate political fables in the Cold War period: Lumpkin’s The Wedding, written between her recantation of Leftist sympathies and 1953 testimony before the Government Sub-Committee on Government Operations (she had also befriended Alger Hiss), and Lee’s famous novel, which posits Atticus Finch as the liberal lawyer who fails to exonerate the falsely accused African-American Tom Robinson from allegations of rape.

Miller is at his most discerning as a literary critic in the case of Mockingbird, spelling out ways in which Finch’s legal strategy directly counters that of the Scottsboro attorneys, and noting how the book perceives “community” standards of justice in ways reminiscent of mob rule during the Scottsboro era.

Miller’s book at times offers gestural analysis where readers may want more textual evidence. His epilogue, reminding us of perverse references to Scottsboro by white supporters of the three Duke University lacrosse players accused in 2006 of raping a Black female dancer, might have made an even more emphatic link between the economic racism that trapped the Scottsboro Boys in their Alabama box car and the hundreds of thousands of Black men currently residing in American prisons.

But Miller’s polemic against injustice is really in the details. The ever-expanding archive of Scottsboro he presents suggests that while the last of the Scottsboro Boys is gone, the case they opened up against American racism and economic injustice remains wide open.

ATC 144, January-February 2010