- Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial
In this ably documented and engagingly written study, James Miller traces the ways in which the Scottsboro case of the 1930s—"arguably the most celebrated racial spectacle of twentieth-century American history, at least up to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till"—has functioned as "a broad signifier for the history of American racial atrocities" (2-3). The words "remembering" and "legacy" are key to Miller's project. While he is concerned with the substance of the issues raised by the Scottsboro case—in which nine African American youths were falsely accused in 1931 of raping two working-class white women, nearly legally lynched, and subsequently positioned at the center of an internationally renowned trial—he focuses primarily upon the ways in which the "Scottsboro Narrative" has been told and retold over the years. It supplies, he argues, a touchstone to changing (and not-so-changing) U. S. attitudes toward the imbrication of race, sex, and political radicalism.
Remembering Scottsboro covers a range of representations—journalistic, literary, dramatic, and cinematic. The opening chapter, aptly titled "Framing the Scottsboro Boys," retraces the contestation between the Communist Party (CP) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for control of the legal battle fought to free the defendants. While less thoroughly documented accounts of this rivalry have favored the reformist (and anticommunist) position adopted by the NAACP, Miller demonstrates that the CP—and its legal affiliate, the International Labor Defense (ILD)—mounted an effective defense that continually forced the state of Alabama to back down from its attempts to execute the defendants. [End Page 768] The call for class-conscious multiracial unity touched many a journalistic nerve and brought the political economy of Jim Crow to widespread attention, even for a time creating dissension within the NAACP.
Several subsequent chapters address the representation of Scottsboro by a range of 1930s creative artists. Miller examines closely Langston Hughes's avant-garde "mass-chant," Scottsboro Limited—with its prominent featuring of the "New Red Negro"—as well as poems by Muriel Rukeyser, Herman J. D. Carter, and Kay Boyle; Nancy Cunard's compendious 1934 anthology, Negro, was, Miller argues, largely inspired by the Scottsboro case. John Wexley's They Shall Not Die, and Paul Peters and George Sklar's Stevedore brought the case to the stage, either directly or obliquely; the "Scottsboro Narrative" supplied the intertext of William Wellman's 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road and of Fritz Lang's Fury (1936). Grace Lumpkin's A Sign for Cain, a novel treating contemporaneous communist organizing in the Jim Crow South, as well as Guy Endore's Babouk and Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder, novels depicting historical slave revolts, drew upon their readerships' acquaintance with the Scottsboro case. Indeed, Miller argues, Bontemps's contrast between the heroic Gabriel and the craven Ben and Pharaoh cannot be understood apart from their allegorical reference to the different personalities and values of various Scottsboro defendants. Finally, Richard Wright is shown to have been deeply absorbed by the toxic blend of racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and state violence informing the Scottsboro Narrative. From his earliest poems through Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son, Wright wrestled with both the explanatory power and the practical limitations of the communist position on the "Negro Question," as these had emerged in the trials taking place in northern Alabama.
The rest of Remembering Scottsboro carries the Narrative beyond the 1930s. Perhaps the most riveting chapter, "The Scottsboro Defendant as Proto-Revolutionary: Haywood Patterson," examines both the life and the autobiography (Scottsboro Boy, 1950) of the "baddest" of the defendants, a real-life counterpart both to Hughes's somewhat mythical "New Red Negro" as well as to Wright's Bigger Thomas. Exploring in detail Patterson's correspondence with various CP and ILD members, Miller highlights the admixture of courage, rage, and cynicism that sustained Patterson through a brutalized life spent almost entirely in prison, even as the rising tide of anticommunism beleaguered his defenders and divested his situation...