Scottsboro Boys

The Civil War ended slavery in the South. White Southerners then created a system called “Jim Crow.” In politics, blacks weren’t allowed to vote or to serve on juries. In economics, blacks got pushed down into “debt peonage” (a new kind of slavery), but so did many poor whites; their schools were lousy[1]; and most professions were closed to them. In 1896 the US Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of “separate, but equal” in the case “Plessy v. Ferguson.” If you were black, your only hope was to get north to New York City or Chicago.

The Great Depression hit at the end of 1929, not that you could tell in the rural South—cotton prices had been dropping for a decade.[2] As unemployment rose, lots of people went “on the bum,” living in “hobo jungles” and “hopping freights” [catching free rides on freight trains] in search of work.[3] This was a dangerous life. Hopping freights amounted to stealing and the railroad police (“bulls”) would throw you off a moving train. There were a lot of creepy people on the bum. Most “bums” or “hobos” carried knives for fighting and the few women dressed like men and sometimes traded sex for protection or money.[4]

In late March 1931, some white kids jumped off a freight train bound from Chattanooga, to Memphis, Tennessee, to report a fight with blacks on the train. A local sheriff in Alabama stopped the train. Two white girls on board said that they had been raped by the nine black males[5] on the train. A doctor examined the girls and didn’t say that they had not been raped. A lynch mob gathered, but the sheriff backed them down by himself and sent for the National Guard.[6] All were tried in Scottsboro, Alabama; all convicted; and eight sentenced to death.

This was 1931: the Depression just kept getting worse; Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t get elected until November 1932; and the “New Deal” was a way’s off. The American Communist Party offered an alternative to the mainstream political parties. They said that only social class mattered; race didn’t matter. Southerners—all of whom were Democrats—said that only race mattered; social class didn’t matter.

Both the Communist Party and the white chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court said the trial was a travesty. The United States Supreme Court agreed. So, new trials were held. One of the white women on the train recanted and said that neither woman had been raped.[7] Nevertheless, the jury convicted the blacks. The judge set the verdict aside because he didn’t believe any of the prosecution witnesses.[8] So, new trials followed. Same result: guilty.[9] Again, the US Supreme Court overturned the verdicts.

In 1937 the prosecutor dropped the charges against four of the accused—after they had spent six years in prison. The rest got long prison sentences instead of the death penalty. Three of them escaped, two to be recaptured and one who only came out thirty years later. They have all received pardons from the Alabama Parole Board. So, the South before the Civil Rights era.

[1] See Maya Angelou’s description of her middle school in Arkansas in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

[2] Alabama, “Song of the South”:

[3] You should always jump for the front end of the car. If you miss, you bounce off and don’t fall under the wheels.

[4] See the movies “The Emperor of the North Poles” (1973) and “The Journey of Natty Gann” (1985) for examples.

[5] The oldest was 19, the youngest was 13, so males, but not men. By my standards.

[6] His name was Matt Wann. He was killed serving a warrant on 3 May 1932. “Let us now praise famous men.”

[7] Which isn’t the same as saying that they hadn’t shtupped some of the black guys in return for a cheese sandwich.

[8] In the next election he was voted out of office and the prosecutor was elected Lieutenant Governor.

[9] Guilty of what? First, guilty of being a black male in the presence of white women. Second, guilty of having tried to make a bunch of redneck morons look like redneck morons by insisting on a trial. Not in the law books, but both were real crimes at the time in Alabama. “What’s got four eyes and can’t see? Mississippi.”

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