For two consecutive years, 1933 and 1934, the Scottsboro protesters descended on the nation's capital in the month of May in attempts to engage the President in the fight to free the Scottsboro Boys. In 1933, the New York Times reported that President Roosevelt was too busy to see the delegation--3,000 strong--led by the Scottsboro Mothers, recently recanted accuser Ruby Bates, and an entourage of prominent white radical leaders and African-American luminaries.
The protest planners tried to capitalize on Mother's Day in 1934 as a time to present their pleas to the President. Again, a large group failed to win an audience--the President was away on the presidential yacht, "Sequoia,"--and the Scottsboro Mothers and Richard Mocre of the International Labor Defense had to content themselves with jousting with a presidential secretary, a man who could "snarl as well as smile."
The following article from the Labor Defender chronicled both the diversity of the group and the heartfelt pleadings and ultimate frustrations of the Scottsboro Mothers. Drawing on the imagery of mothers laying wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery, the author portrayed these women as class-war mothers.
Class War Mother's Day
Every year on Mother's Day sabers flash in Arlington. The military cemetery is full of flags. Mothers silently wreathe the marble tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the green hill sloping down to the Potomac, and while young men in uniform for another war stand by, statesmen venerate the mothers whose sons were slain in the "war to end war."
This year another kind of War Mother found a place in the scene. The Class-War Mothers.
The Scottsboro Mothers, five Negro mothers of the Scottsboro Boys, to see President Roosevelt. One was too ill to leave her bed in Washington, four proceeded with the accompanying delegation to the White House. There were no flags or fifes, but there were soldiers in uniform with them, and a Gold Star mother. Also a famous coloratura soprano, Madame Lillian Evanti, who but a short time ago sang in the White House at the invitation of the President and Mrs. Roosevelt; as well as Negro and white civic, social welfare, and religious leaders.
They walked to the gate at the head of the steps leading to the plaza fronting the White House executive offices. Uniformed White House police met them. The President was "not in."
The President was yachting.
For two weeks the Scottsboro Mothers had been requesting this Mother's Day interview, by letter, telegram and telephone call. They had appealed to Mrs. Roosevelt as well as to the President. Only the day before this, they had received a terse telegram, declaring that the Scottsboro Case was under the jurisdiction of the state of Alabama. They came on, for they had traveled hundreds of miles, these five--
Josephine Powell, mother of Ozzie, Mamie Williams, mother of Eugene, Janie Patterson, mother of Heywood, Ida Norris, mother of Clarence, Viola Montgomery, mother of Olen. The sons of the first two are just sixteen now, the others are twenty; all were three years younger when they were jailed on the terrible charge.
Again the next day they returned to the White House. This time President Roosevelt sent word his secretary would receive them. But only the mothers and Richard Moore of the International Labor Defense! Not Ruby Bates, the white girl whose conscience compels her to work for the freedom of these boys because she knows that they are innocent. Not Mrs. Mary Craik Speed, Alabama Colonial Dame who is a political exile from Alabama because she spoke out against the oppression of the Scottsboro boys and the Negro people. Not the white Quaker and Negro Young Women's Christian Association club leaders. No one but the Negro mothers and their spokesman.
So the Committee waited outside.
Marvin H. Mclntyre, the Roosevelt secretary, is a tightlipped man who can snarl as well as smile. He comes out to the mothers who are kept waiting in the lobby. He stands on the rich green carpet. They stand around him in their simple cotton dresses, and they speak:--
Mother Patterson: "I'm Heywood's mother. I'm sorry I can't see the President because I wanted to tell him, ‘Give me Heywood so my mind won't go unbalanced.’ I wanted to tell him--
Secretary Mclntyre: "That's all right, I sympathize with you."
Mother Williams: "I come over a thousand miles to see the President. I'm sorry he won't see us because our nine boys has been in jail three years--innocent. All of them is fatherless excepting one, that's Heywood. They went off to hunt for work and got framed up like that. The I. L. D. and we mothers and lots and lots of working people is doing all they can--won't the President do his part?"
Mother Montgomery: "My boy was going blind. He left home to go to a hospital in Memphis to try to get his eyes treated. He is innocent, too. I come to ask the President to do what he can to stop the torture of my boy and the other innocent boys."
Secretary McIntyre: "It isn't the President's business; it's the business of the state of Alabama."
Richard Moore speaks. He declares the hypocrisy of the White House dictum that the case is in the hands of Alabama. If we must bide by that precious principle of precedent, did not Woodrow Wilson intervene on behalf of Tom Mooney following workers' demonstrations that caused the diplomatic telegraph wires to burn from Moscow to Washington? Has not President Roosevelt himself crossed state jurisdiction to recommend laws to protect the children of wealth from kidnapping? (Laws which incidentally hold a threat to all labor organizations). Did not the President close state banks when bankers were confronted by depositors clamoring for their savings? But the Scottsboro Mothers ask him to speak and to do everything in his power! As their petition says, "Your word, Mr. President, would have great weight throughout the land. Millions of people in America and other countries have already raised their voices in protest. Will you not, as President of the United States, speak and do everything in your power to free our wronged and tortured boys?"
Fundamentally, Moore argues, "The President is supposed to look out for the welfare of the people. He is not only authorized, he is duty bound to take steps to enforce the constitutional rights of life and liberty when they are trampled in the states. And the Scottsboro case involves not only the lives of nine innocent boys, but the constitutional rights of 18,000,000 oppressed Negores, the rights of all the downtrodden people of this country, white as well as black."
The President's Secretary cogitates; advises, "Send me some documents."
Mother Williams Looks at him, her eyes importunate.
"You is some woman's son," she pleads. "You--" She was going to ask him if he could imagine how his mother would feel if it were he facing death and torture, innocent, three years—
"Oh," snapped the Secretary, "every man is some woman's son."
War instruments meet the eye outside. The Red-Squadders, armed, stand guard. The White House police are here to shout, as the photographers line up, "No pictures with the White House in the background!" Once Tom Mooney's Mother, refused an audience, was photographed there; apparently the picture was effective. The police have another duty also--as a girl starts to hand out statements to the press, they cry, "Stop! Don't try to distribute leaflets here!" It was superfluous. Only two of the dozen reporters moved from their bridge and chess games in the press room, although all newspapers had been notified what was happening.
The cops pushed the little delegation to the sidewalk. Mrs. Wilhana Burroughts, the New York teacher who was thrown out of the public schools for defending a fellow teacher in a wage fight, pushed back and exclaimed, "He won't see us, huh-- Well, when enough of us get together he will see us--and act!"
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