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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
Ruby was dressed in a smart gray coat with matching cloche. In 1931 an investigator for the American Civil Liberties Union had described her as a “large, fresh, good-looking girl” with soft “calflike” eyes. But the freshness now was gone. Unlike the spirited Victoria, Ruby seldom raised her eyes from the floor as she mumbled her testimony. Leibowitz asked few questions in his direct examination. On the night of March 23, 1931, “did you have intercourse with Lester Carter … ?” “I certainly did,” Ruby replied softly. “Did Victoria Price have intercourse with Jack Tiller … in your presence?” he asked. “She certainly did,” said Ruby. Judge Horton, who had been sitting behind the bench throughout the trial, got up and moved down to a seat in front of the spectators facing Miss Bates.
Did any rape take place on the Chattanooga-toHuntsville freight train? continued Leibowitz. Not that she knew of, Ruby replied, and she had been with Victoria Price for the entire trip. While the jury and spectators strained to hear her low voice, she explained why she had decided to testify for the defense. Five weeks before, she said, she had left Huntsville with a boyfriend to avoid any involvement in the new Decatur trials. First she had gone to Montgomery; from there she had hitched a ride to New York, where she had worked for a “Jewish lady” for several weeks. But her conscience bothered her, and after reading about a famous New York minister, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick (“Dr. Fostick,” she called him), she visited him in his study one evening late in March. He arranged for her to go to the Birmingham Church of the Advent and from there to Decatur. Leibowitz completed his questioning in less than fifteen minutes.
For a moment, the Attorney General stared silently at Ruby, who sat with her eyes downcast. “Where did you get that coat?” he finally asked. She hesitated for a moment, and then whispered, “I bought it.” “Who gave you the money to buy it?” Knight asked. “Well, I don’t know,” she replied evasively, her eyes still fixed on the floor. “You don’t know?” Knight repeated sarcastically. “Where did you get that hat? Who was the beneficent donor?” There was a long pause as Ruby sat biting nervously at her lower lip. From his seat inside the spectators’ rail, Judge Horton leaned forward and gently asked her, “Do you know?” Almost inaudibly she murmured, “Dr. Fostick of New York.”
Whenever Knight questioned her about her testimony at Scottsboro, she repeated over and over: “I told it just like Victoria Price told it,” or “I said it, but Victoria told me to.” The majority of the Attorney General’s questions were not, however, about her earlier allegations at Scottsboro. He seemed more intent on proving to the jury that Ruby had been bribed by the defense. Knight suspected that her conscience had been given an assist by representatives of the International Labor Defense. Firing his questions rapidly at the subdued witness, he asked her about her finances. How much money was she making when she left Huntsville? How had she paid for the trip from Montgomery to New York? Who gave her funds for the trip back to Alabama? Although she talked vaguely of loans from her employer in New York, her obvious lack of candor brought smirks and open laughter from the packed courtroom. The Attorney General also drew from Ruby an admission that she was suffering from syphilis and gonorrhea in May of 1931 and had told a Huntsville doctor who treated her that she had contracted it from Negroes who had raped her.
The main testimony in the trial ended when Ruby Bates meekly stepped from the witness stand late Thursday afternoon. Her story caused “an immediate and bitter reaction among the residents of … [Morgan] and neighboring counties,” said the New York Times correspondent. Citizens of the area were convinced she had “sold out” to the defense. Although Attorney General Knight expressed confidence that the “mob spirit” would exhaust itself in harmless talk, reporters noticed that Miss Bates was hustled away from the courtroom and taken to a secret hiding place by a detachment of National Guardsmen. Knight also strengthened the National Guard unit guarding Leibowitz and Brodsky.
On the following afternoon County Solicitor Wright began the state’s summation. Renowned among local all-day singers, Wright bellowed his remarks in the singsong chant of a sawdust-trail evangelist. At first he rambled on about the “fancy New York clothes” of the defense’s chief witnesses, Lester Carter and Ruby Bates. But soon he was ringing the changes on all the fears and hatreds that had been aroused in the two weeks of the trial. In summarizing the testimony of Carter, he said with mincing sarcasm: “What does Mr. Carter tell you, maybe it is Carterinsky nowl If he had a-been with Brodsky another two weeks he would have been down here with a pack on his back a-trying to sell you goods. Are you going to countenance that sort of thing?” From a front-row seat, an excited spectator exclaimed “No!” with the fervor of an “Amen” in church.