How Did Women Shape the Discourse and Further Interracial Cooperation in the Worldwide Mass Movement to "Free the Scottsboro Boys"?


Six Scottsboro Mothers

Top row, left to right: Viola Montgomery, Janie Patterson, Ada Wright;
Bottom row, left to right: First two women are Ida Norris and Josephine Powell,
Mamie Williams.

From Labor Defender, November 1934.

Documents selected and interpreted by
Sara L. Creed
Under the direction of Hasia Diner
New York University
March 2003

    Few legal battles have so captured worldwide attention and galvanized public opinion as did the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teenagers accused of raping two young white women on a freight train in Depression-era Alabama, near the town of Scottsboro. Convicted in rushed-up trials with little evidence save the testimony of the accusers, which was not supported by doctors' examinations, the nine defendants had scant benefit of counsel and no chance for a fair hearing before an all-white jury in a racially hostile atmosphere. Eight of the nine were sentenced to death, with only the youngest, at age 13, escaping with a life sentence.

    There followed a lengthy series of appeals that kept the Scottsboro Boys in prison for a collective term of more than 100 years and played out a human tragedy of families separated and young lives wasted, of the difficulty of achieving justice in the face of prejudice and racial hatred. The last Scottsboro Boy was released from prison in 1950. Their experiences as Scottsboro defendants shadowed the nine for the rest of their troubled lives.

    The trials, death sentences, appeals, retrials, and long incarceration of the Scottsboro Boys dominated headlines and mobilized protests and public demonstrations on the defendants' behalf throughout the 1930s. "Free the Scottsboro Boys" became a rallying cry against injustice, racial prejudice and lynch mentality that resounded worldwide. These protests saved the defendants' lives, vindicated the effectiveness of mass protest as a tool for social change, and foreshadowed the civil rights movement of the 1960s.[1]

    Women played a prominent role in the protest movement to "Free the Scottsboro Boys." Women's voices, women's faces, and women's intensity over the plight of innocent boys carried weight in the media and on the rostrum. Women implanted the message of outrage in the psyche of a radical generation. To be sure, men dominated the major roles on both sides, from Communist Party leaders to Alabama judges, from Jewish lawyers from New York City to black ministers from Chattanooga, and, of course, the nine defendants. Nine male Supreme Court justices overruled the Alabama courts, setting new legal standards for right to adequate counsel and jury selection. Meanwhile, President Franklin D. Roosevelt twice refused to meet with mothers of the Scottsboro Boys and their entourage of protesters.

    But women--from the Scottsboro Mother, to the perceptive, empathetic female writer, to Communist Party women organizing in Harlem--defined how the protests evolved and how the message was broadcast worldwide. Even the women accusers, one of whom recanted her testimony during the second round of trials, helped spark the protest and stoke public outrage.

    But historians have only lately begun to study and acknowledge the contributions of women to the broad fabric of American societal development. In particular, the stories of poor, black and working-class women have been lost, too often "submerged in the histories of others."[2] The names of the women in the Scottsboro protests rarely appear in history books, and their centrality to the evolution and progression of the movement to "Save the Scottsboro Boys" has remained largely unacknowledged by historians. The documents that follow outline the untold story of the women in the Scottsboro protests and how they shaped the discourse on social justice and civil rights. Their efforts to "Free the Scottsboro Boys" reverberate through these words and images.

    While the Scottsboro Boys captured world-wide attention and the events themselves occurred in rural Alabama, New York City served as the incubator of dissent. New York in the 1930s seethed with disaffection, groaned with despair, and erupted into protest. As a hotbed of radicalism, a focal point for the woes of a nation engulfed in the Great Depression, New York exhibited an often roiling interplay among Socialists, Communists, Black Nationalists, trade unionists, capitalist "bosses," immigrants and internal migrants--all races and groups with myriad religions and creeds.

    New Yorkers were passionate about their causes, which were often quickly magnified by the city's media. National and international press outlets centered their headquarters in New York. Journalists, commentators and critics of every stripe flocked to New York's media hub, reporting through general, radical and foreign-language newspapers, and making the city a center of cultural production. Local news in New York quickly became national news. Protest at street level could easily be catapulted to national exposure and international icon in this volatile and much-watched city.

    In 1931, the case of the Scottsboro Boys captured New Yorkers' attention, instantly becoming a cause for protest. The liberal press, the Communist Party, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.), and other civil and social justice advocacy groups with headquarters in New York City poured out a stream of reporting and commentary on events in the Alabama courtrooms and jails. The Communist Party U.S.A., active in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, published the Daily Worker and the Yiddish-language Morgen Freiheit from offices near Union Square, the site also of massive May Day parades and demonstrations during the 1930s. Two weekly magazines, the Nation and the New Republic, critiqued Scottsboro and other social and political issues of the day and commented on cultural trends for the intelligentsia. In its monthly publication Crisis, begun in 1910 by W.E.B. Du Bois, the N.A.A.C.P. continued its commentary on issues of discrimination and civil rights and its cultural and social articles on the successes of "the Darker Races." New York served as the ultimate conduit of social dialogue and radical polemics. When news of Scottsboro hit, not just Harlem, but all of New York, exploded.

    The Scottsboro case inspired some of the decade's finest writers and artists to raise their voices to protest racial injustice. The many female journalists and commentators who covered the case left a legacy of sensitive reporting and analysis that looked beyond the alleged crime, as charged, to the larger failings from which it sprang. Many of these women worked for radical journals, progressive newspapers and political organs where the news of Scottsboro sparked immediate interest. Helen Marcy (pseud. for Isabelle Allen) of the Southern Worker, for example, raced off to Alabama from her post in Chattanooga to interview the condemned Scottsboro Boys. Her article in The Daily Worker of April 16, 1931, was one of the first on-the-scene reports published in the New York media (see Document 1).

    The A.C.L.U., founded in 1920 to protect the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, also sent a female investigator to the scene--Hollace Ransdell. She produced a report detailing, sometimes with slackjawed wonder, the atmosphere as well as the events that led to the trials and speedy convictions of the Scottsboro Boys (see Document 3). For Ransdell and the A.C.L.U., the Scottsboro trials represented a clear case of denial of rights because of racism.

    Mary Heaton Vorse, a writer of national standing with credentials in labor and radical protests, journeyed to Alabama for the second round of trials in 1933. The resulting pieces for The New Republic presented a similarly nuanced viewpoint to a national and international audience. In "How Scottsboro Happened," she articulated both condemnation of the system that allowed such judgments and an understanding of the human tragedy revealed there (see Document 6 and Document 8).

    While the Scottsboro Boys were the focus of intense media coverage during repeated series of trials, appeals, and retrials, their families became part of a behind-the-scenes battle that would significantly impact the growing protest movement. During the last nine months of 1931, lawyers from the N.A.A.C.P. and the legal arm of the Communist Party, the International Labor Defense (I.L.D.), vied over which organization would represent the Scottsboro Boys in court. The I.L.D. appeared on the scene early and stayed there; representatives visited with the defendants and, more importantly, with their families. Party activists like Mary Licht brought comfort and support to the families, in most cases headed by a single mother. After much back-and-forth among the boys and parents, the I.L.D. eventually won clear right to defend the Scottsboro Boys through the mid-1930s (see Document 4).

    For their part, the families--and particularly the mothers--played an active, visible, and convincing role in the protest. The "Scottsboro Mother" became an archetype of the long-suffering but still defiant protector of her young. Detractors claimed that the Communists used the families--and indeed the Scottsboro Boys themselves--in the Party's self-interest to provoke and promote worldwide mass protest. The Scottsboro Mothers met this criticism with disdain--Ada Wright, for example, said, "I am sticking by the International Labor Defense and they are stickin' by us"--and countered it with their presence on speaking tours, at protest rallies, and in media coverage (see documents 2, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12A-I, 13 and 14 for press coverage and documents 17, 18 and 19 for rallies).

    The mothers of the defendants proved to be a powerful symbol, and their presence never failed to rally support for the protest movement. The general daily press succumbed to the appeal of the Scottsboro Mothers. When one of them appeared, reporters found the event newsworthy, even if the incident was small-scale and the outcome of the protest ineffectual (see Document 11). So popular and familiar did the names and faces of the Scottsboro mothers become that the I.L.D.'s Harlem Section printed stationery bearing their likenesses and branches of the I.L.D. in Harlem adopted their names from those of the mothers as well as the boys. At mass protests, the simple words of a Scottsboro Mother supplied news copy that provided balance to the usual rhetoric and Depression-era demands of the Communist Party. Through these points of reference, Scottsboro stayed ever in front of the Communist agenda and functioned as a rallying call at every gathering (see documents 15 and 16).

    Another woman who played a key part in rallying public protest was Ruby Bates. One of the two women allegedly raped by the Scottsboro Boys, she underwent a transformation in 1933. At the retrial, she recanted her previous testimony, saying that none of the black youths had touched her or the other accuser, Victoria Price. "I told it just like Victoria Price told it," Bates testified on April 7, 1933, in the Decatur, Alabama, courtroom. Her turnabout did not impress the jury. As Mary Heaton Vorse noted, "the jury smelled the North" on her (see Document 8). But to the protest movement and the Communist Party, Bates became a hero. Like a ninth Scottsboro Mother, she appeared at rallies and traveled the country to support the cause of the Scottsboro Boys (see Document 7, Document 18 and Document 19.)

    And so Scottsboro Mothers and reformed accuser Ruby Bates comprised a traveling show that turned up everywhere: May Day parades in New York City, mass marches on Washington, protest rallies around the country. Ada Wright, mother of two of the defendants, set a hectic pace with a six-month speaking tour of Europe in 1932. She traveled with party official J. Louis Engdahl, who died in Moscow, the last stop on the tour. The Party publicized Engdahl as a martyr to the cause of the Scottsboro Boys. When Wright made a triumphant return to New York, bearing Engdahl's ashes, crowds in Harlem welcomed her like visiting royalty (see Document 13 and Document 14). The mothers put a human face on the cause of the Scottsboro Boys and made palpable the weight of the injustice they were suffering (see Document 23.)

    Scottsboro protests played out against a backdrop of ongoing Great Depression suffering and deprivations. Protests demanding jobs, bread, and equal treatment melded easily into calls to "Free the Scottsboro Boys!" The Communist Party apparatus lined up to serve the Scottsboro protest movement, and party workers, like Harlem Section secretary Clarina Michelson, strove to channel the passion exhibited over the plight of the Scottsboro Boys into what they viewed as the broader issue of oppression of the worker (see documents 24, 25, 26 and 27).

    The Communist Party garnered marked success from the Scottsboro protests, especially among black workers. But Clarina Michelson documented the disappointments the Party suffered at not being able to translate the upsurge of vitriolic outrage into a cadre of dedicated black Communists. That quest eventually failed, and it failed despite the Scottsboro Mothers and reformed accuser Ruby Bates, despite all the sympathetic press and world-wide attention, and despite all the labor of devoted comrades.

    Nevertheless, the Scottsboro Boys left a powerful legacy. The sorry plight they endured in Alabama jail cells in the 1930s led eventually to milestone advances in legal rights for African Americans and proof of the power of mass movements to effect social change. The documents that follow permit us to assess how women of different races, regions, backgrounds, and educational levels provided a visible stream of support that shaped the struggle to "Save the Scottsboro Boys" and moved the search for social justice a step forward.

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