restricted access 3. The Scottsboro Boys: Demands for Equality from the Deep South to New York City
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61 In March 1931—a full year before the Harlan County, Kentucky, trip and the Reed Harris expulsion—nine black boys ranging in age from 13 to 19 years old were arrested on a freight train near Scottsboro, Alabama .Within twelve days of their arrest, they were indicted, tried, and all but one were convicted of raping two young white women aged 17 and 21. Their many retrials would keep the cases of these young men in the national spotlight for the remainder of the decade and beyond.1 Already in October 1932, a month before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Powell v. Alabama, remanded the decision of the Alabama State Supreme Court, holding that the Scottsboro Boys’ right to due process had been violated, the National Student League was drumming up support for such a ruling. An article in the Student Review, the official newsletter of the NSL, provided a detailed review of the case up to that point. The article stressed the unfair treatment the defendants had suffered while calling to light the travesty of justice American jurisprudence had suffered because the whole trial had been nothing but a show: The stage was already set. . . . A special grand jury had already indicted the boys. Legal formalities had been dispensed with. . . . The nine terrified, helpless boys, chained, and bearing marks of brutal beatings, were dragged into the court-room. The oldest boy was twenty; the youngest just thirteen—all poor, illiterate, and absolutely at the mercy of the mob. . . . The court tried to bribe them and threaten them, but they held out courageously. They The Scottsboro Boys Demands for Equality from the Deep South to New York City 3 62 Seeing the Problem did not commit the crime. When the two oldest boys were found guilty wild applause broke out in the courtroom, followed by loud cheers from the mob outside. The brass band struck up a lively tune “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. . . . Mass demonstrations have aroused the world against the barbarous injustice committed against nine innocent boys. American embassies have been picketed. . . . As Sacco and Vanzetti became the symbols of the suppression of revolutionary workers the world over so have these nine Negroes become, the world over, the symbols of the oppression of a national minority.2 The author then called on young people (students, in particular) to rally to the Scottsboro Boys’ defense by tying together the precarious status of all working class people: If we students, intellectual workers, fail to put up a strong fight for the liberation of these nine Scottsboro boys, we shall betray not only the cause of the Negro people whose desperate plight these boys symbolize, but the cause of the whole working class in the U.S. and all over the world.“Labor in the white skin cannot be liberated as long as labor in the black skin is enslaved!”3 The editorial brought the issue home to students. It was not merely a matter of feeling sorry for the Scottsboro Boys. The Great Depression had forced many students out of school and into a hostile workforce and thus into the ranks of the unemployed. They, too, experienced the wage-reducing impact of competing with black workers for employment in a Jim Crow system.4 Their fate was wrapped up in the fate of these young African-Americans, they argued, because of the exploitative nature of capitalism. Historian Dan Carter echoed the sentiment of the college editor who spoke the minds of many young radicals when he said that “The Scottsboro Case was destined to be the decade’s equivalent of Sacco and Vanzetti, a test of the growing strength of the masses against the capitalist bosses of the South and their cohorts throughout the United States.”5 The economic plight of African-Americans aroused sympathy from youth activists who felt a sense of solidarity with a group of surplus workers hard-hit by unemployment, but they also realized that this situation was compounded by racism.Many of them found the communists’ argument that this case was the inevitable result of an economic system based upon racism and class exploitation convincing.6 African-American unem- The Scottsboro Boys 63 ployment was estimated to be at least 29 percent higher than general unemployment , while African-Americans also made up the majority of the farmers suffering most from the Great Depression: sharecroppers.7 New York City college students were apprised of the full gamut of...