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A Reasonable Doubt
HISTORY AT MIDDLE DISTANCE The charge was rape. The accuser was a southern white woman, the accused were Negroes. But what kind of woman was Victoria Price? And what had really happened aboard that freight train?
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The Scottsburo Case—an infamous series of litigations which was to inflame both the North and the South for many years—began inconspicuously on March 25, 1931, as white and Negro hobos brawled aboard a freight train moving across northeastern Alabama. One of the white youths thrown from the tram reported the fight to the nearest statwnmaster, and a Jackson (bounty posse stopped the tram at the rural village of Paint Rock. When deputies removed the nine Negro teenagers on board they also discovered two young white pirls, aged seventeen and twenty-one, who were hitching a ride from Chattanooga, Tennessee, back to their home in Huntsville, Alabama. In the first confusing minutes after the arrests, Ruby Bates whispered to officials that she and her friend, Victoria Price, had been raped by the nine Negroes, who ranged m age from twelve to nineteen. A hasty medical examination revealed evidence of sexual intercourse.
That night, sheriff’s deputies, strengthened by the Alabama .National Guard, averted a mass lynching after a sullen mob gathered outside the Jackson County jailhouse in the little town of Scottsboro. Two weeks later, while a crowd of eight to ten thousand filled Scottsboro ‘s streets, two court-appointed attorneys halfheartedly defended the frightened hoys. Four juries convicted and sentenced eight to death; the trial of Leroy VCright, aged twelve, for whom the stale had asked a life sentence, ended m a hung jury.
Cases similar to the Scottsboro one had been largely unnoticed outside the South. But the number of defendants, their extreme youth, the stunning rapidity of the trials, and the, harsh sentences the boys received attracted the attention of national newspapers. In April, the International Labor Defense, a close affiliate of the Communist party, launched a propaganda campaign to expose what it called “the Alabama frame-up. “Although the N. A. A .C.P. belatedly offered legal support to the convicted youths, the LL.D. swiftly gained the backing of the boys and their parents. In late December of 1931, N.A.A.C.P. attorneys withdrew from the case.
The United States Supreme Court accepted the I.L.D.’s contention that the youths had had inadequate legal counsel at Scottsboro and overturned the convictions in 1932. But the rallies, pamphlets, and flamboyant accusations of the International Labor Defense and the Communist party only stiffened the resolve of Alabamians to repel the accusations of “outsiders” and see the Scottsboro defendants put to death. As the new trials approached in the spring of 1933, the International Labor Defense reluctantly turned to one of the nation’s most brilliant criminal attorneys, Samuel S. Leibowitz of Brooklyn, New York. Leibowitz did not subscribe to the I.L.D. ideology, but he felt that the boys’ basic civil rights had been violated, and when the I.L.D.’s executive secretary promised to shelve temporarily his organisation ‘s revolutionary rhetoric, Leibowitz agreed to defend the youths without fee.
He began the case with a plea for a change of venue, and the presiding judge agreed to transfer the trials fifty miles west of Scottsboro to Decatur, the seat of Morgan County. There, with a National Guard unit on duty to keep order, the second series of trials began in late March. The first defendant to be tried was Haywood Patterson, nineteen.
March 27, the opening day, was warm and clear in Decatur. Before 7 A.M. a large and cheerful crowd had gathered outside the two-story yellow brick courthouse. Even the announcement that there would be a half-day’s delay in the proceedings did not seem to dispel the spectators’ good nature. Throughout the morning they sunned lazily on the wide lawn or gossiped around the two courthouse statues, one honoring justice and the other paying tribute to those Confederate soldiers “who gave their lives for a just cause—State’s Rights.” There was some talk about the trial, but mostly the relaxed crowd discussed the Depression. Three and a half years after the crash of 1929, these Alabamians- like most Americans—were optimistically looking to Mr. Roosevelt and his New Deal for relief. For as the cotton mills and railroad shops had closed or curtailed their operations, hard times had come to Decatur. The spring foliage and flowers camouflaged, but they could not conceal, the empty, dilapidated stores downtown and the peeling paint on the outlying houses.
Samuel Leibowitz had been apprehensive when he first arrived in Decatur. He was keenly aware that he and his fellow defense attorney, Joseph Brodsky, were outsiders. Worse, they were New York Jews. To his relief, however, the townspeople greeted him with unaffected hospitality. “[They] … impress me as being honest, God-fearing people who want to see justice done,” he told reporters.
After lunch, as officials announced that the court would soon convene, an irregular line formed, stretching through the courthouse corridors and past the brass spittoons resting on their tobacco-stained rubber pads. Within minutes, the 425 seats were filled—whites in three sections, Negroes in the fourth. At 2 P.M. , Judge James Edwin Horton, Jr., settled into the raised judge’s chair, adjusted his tortoise-shell spectacles, and nodded to the prosecutor to begin reading the indictment.