Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966) reported from Decatur, Alabama, in the second round of trials of the Scottsboro Boys. Nearing her sixtieth year in 1933, this indefatigable radical journalist and labor activist had been present at major events of social unrest, protest, union organizing, world war, and revolution for most of her life. She remained a working journalist through the 1940s and a committed social activist for all her days. Covering the second trial of the Scottsboro Boys in 1933 for The New Republic, she captured in many articles the tension of the scene as well as the ultimate futility of logical argument in the race-baiting atmosphere of the Alabama courtroom.
Unlike the reflective essay Vorse wrote at the end of the trial (see Document 8), this piece came out of the heat of the trial. One can almost feel the struggle of the writer to understand the casual acceptance of racism she found all around her and the prosecution's rejection of all reasonable argument in the face of it. Vorse recognized, in the prosecution's "language of prejudice and hate," the language that everyone in the courtroom understood and wanted to hear. Vorse brought to northern and national audiences this struggle to understand the impact of deeply inculcated prejudice and, in the process, painted Scottsboro onto a larger canvas of social movements for racial justice and equality.
The Scottsboro Trial
WITH THE verdict of guilty, with the death penalty for Haywood Patterson brought in by the Decatur jury on April 9, there dies all hope of a fair trial for Negroes in the South. Haywood Patterson was sentenced to death for the second time exactly two years after his first trial, which was reversed as unfair by the United States Supreme Court. The first trial was carried on while excitement ran high after two girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, accused nine Negroes of assault. This was supposed to have happened between Stevenson and Paint Rock, Alabama, on a freight train.
The Negro boys had no adequate lawyer. They were tried and sentenced to die in the electric chair within ten days after the alleged crime. They have told many people that they were beaten up in jail, intimidated and made to accuse one another. All the South's horror at the crime of rape perpetrated by a Negro man on a white woman led to their speedy conviction.
This time the trial was carried on with Judge James E. Horton, who was the symbol of fairness, sitting on the bench, with one of the most brilliant criminal lawyers in America, Samuel S. Leibowitz, defending them, with other eminent lawyers, Joseph Brodsky of New York and G. W. Chamlee of Chattanooga, assisting him.
Samuel Leibowitz took the case feeling assured, from the examination of the former testimony, that no "fouler frame-up had ever been perpetrated in the United States." No unprejudiced person could have listened to the testimony unfold without being convinced of the innocence of Haywood Patterson, the boy on trial.
The judge's charge, made so gravely, so earnestly was a moving exhortation to fairness. Yet the verdict brought in was identical with that given two years ago in a community full of aroused passion. It is evident that Haywood Patterson -- and as fared this boy so will the others fare -- was tried and condemned to death, not by the weight of evidence but by the same savage race prejudice which condemned him two years ago. The case was tried and prejudged from the moment that Victoria Price sat on the witness stand and in a hard voice identified Haywood Patterson as her assailant.
It was the word of a white woman against that of a black man, and not all the testimony in God's high heaven, not the fact that she had perjured herself, nor that Ruby Bates swore that no Negro had touched them, not the doctor's damning testimony, made any difference after that.[A]
It is a fortunate thing that during the first week of the trial the foundations of a new reversal by the Supreme Court were laid. During the first week it was the jury system of the South which was on trial. A far-reaching attack was made by the defense lawyers on the white supremacy in the courts of the South.
Everyone knows that the Fourteenth Amendment is always and everywhere violated in the South through the "willful exclusion of Negroes from jury lists." Issues more fundamental than the so-called "Scottsboro case" were at stake. During the two years since the first trial the public consciousness has been plowed and harrowed by mass action.
What started as an ordinary criminal case has grown and deepened until social implications are of the widest sort. It has taken two years of untiring effort to bring out the many ramifications of this complex case. Samuel Leibowitz has stated, "If it were not for the International Labor Defense these boys would have burned long ago," and it is true. Now for the first time in Southern legal history the failure to have Negroes on juries was being questioned.
For two days Negro witnesses filed before the court. There were doctors, preachers, business men, professors. Almost all had college degrees, some more than one. All were middle-aged men of substance, respected in their communities. Each knew many other Negroes as competent to serve on juries as they were themselves.
No one had ever heard of a Negro serving on an Alabama jury. No one ever heard of a Negro juror anywhere in the South. Everyone knows that Negroes, whatever their attainments or education, are not allowed on Southern juries. Now for the first time in Southern legal history the omission of Negroes on juries was being questioned in this Decatur courtroom.
The jury lists were called for by Leibowitz. These records are secret, and never before in the history of the state has the immense red book been produced in court. Sheriff "Bud" Davis, who is one of the biggest men alive, bore in the jury book. A flurry ran through the courtroom. The Attorney General looked amazed. He had not expected that the court would permit the inspection of the files.
Leibowitz went up to the book and brought his palms down on it in a tap of satisfaction. Vast Jury Commissioner Tidwell, whose red face indicates high blood pressure, said he didn't recognize most of the names and didn't know if there were many Negroes on the files or not.
"I'll go through these files and prove no Negroes appear on the lists if it takes fifteen years, if it takes till doomsday!" Leibowitz announced.
The judge finally ruled that the chief counsel for the defense had established a prima-facie case against the jury system of the state of Alabama in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Attorney General Knight was ordered to proceed with evidence for the state. Only one witness, Jury Commissioner Arthur J. Tidwell was called. He said, when cross-questioned, that he did not know a Negro fit for jury duty. Leibowitz then made the motion that the venire be quashed. The courtroom was tense as the judge said quietly, "Motion denied." The long fought battle against the exclusion of Negroes from the jury was lost, yet the first stage of this trial was looked on everywhere as a victory for the defense. For the first time the Southern jury system had been challenged, and in a trial so historic that each detail will be known over the entire world.
One thing about the whole elaborate show remained real and that was the poisonous feeling of hate and race prejudice in the courtroom. It was strikingly visible on the first day that the defendant was brought into court, after a week of argument over the jury system.
Directly under Judge Horton in the witness stand sits Victoria Price. She claims to be twenty-one and looks older. It is impossible to exaggerate the girl's appalling hardness. She is more than tough. She is terrifying in her depravity. Her head comes in direct line with that of Judge Horton -- a strange contrast. Between them, they compass the best and worst that this part of the country can produce.
The courtroom is crammed. To the left is a section reserved for Negroes. Outside two hundred more people wait for vacancies behind a barrier, a soldier guarding them. State militia with fixed bayonets guard the stairs leading to the courtroom. Downstairs a crowd of whites and Negroes mill restlessly around the corridors, which are punctuated with big brass cuspidors sitting on rubber mats, a halo of tobacco juice around each mat.
The audience is full of frustrated faces and faces avid, eager and full of hate -- the pack in leash. There is talk of a mob of fifty who are said to have come from Scottsboro. The air is acrid with the smell of unwashed men.
On the left, outside the railing dividing court from audience, are two Negro reporters. Their presence has caused a great deal of comment in the white audience. I have heard people say that they "ought to be run out of town."
Leibowitz is cross-questioning Victoria Price. Under his gentle, satirical, unremitting inquiries she becomes restless and defiant, crackling with anger, malignant. It is as if her emotion was the mob's barometer. They lean forward tensely at her words. The Attorney General exclaims perpetually "I protest!" The examination goes on inexorably.
Leibowitz is a great criminal lawyer. He is said to have defended eighty-five men for manslaughter and murder without losing a case. His manner is easy, almost gentle. He does not need to raise his clear, well modulated voice. He has a mastery of his material that is like the virtuosity of a great artist. "I'm not a great lawyer," he says in answer to a compliment, "I'm only thorough." He is horribly thorough. He seems to know every foot traveled by the girls on the fateful journey, everything they have done in the days preceding the alleged crime. He knows who their boy friends were and what their relations were with the boy friends. He has Victoria Price's police records. He seems to know as much as God. It is more like a dissection of a life than a cross-questioning. It is as though one could see the misspent days of Victoria Price shredded to bits. The girl is full of hate and venom! She persistently denies everything, while Leibowitz shreds apart her life with his patient scalpel.
The audience in the courtroom could not forgive him for what he revealed about Victoria Price. But feeling rose to a higher pitch on Friday, the next-to-last day of the trial, when Solicitor Wade Wright made his summation to the jury. He is an enormous man, florid, dark, and during his appeal to the jury he grew so purple and swollen with his emotion that one felt he might at any moment burst and scatter dark blood over the courtroom.
As he shouted and ranted, the feeling which had been hidden, kept down by the fair and humane judge, came out like a punctured boil. As he shouted that "no Alabama jury would listen to witnesses bought with Jew money from New York," you could hear murmurs of approval in the courtroom. Members of the jury leaned forward. Wright was speaking the language of prejudice and hate which everyone wanted, which everyone understood.
Just as I was leaving, I heard local public opinion speak. Beside me in the railway station was a man of about fifty dressed in overalls. He had shrewd brown eyes and a good head. He said he was the county detective. He commented on the cleverness of Leibowitz.
"He's the best investigator the Decatur courtroom ever saw--though not so good a speaker as some. But he's up against an awful hard jury."
I suggested that they seemed like a very fine lot of men, an intelligent jury.
"They're that all right," he agreed, "but there's some hard convictors among them!"
"What verdict do you think they'll bring in?"
"They'll bring in guilty with the death penalty," he said with the quiet assurance of positive knowledge.
"They made out a pretty strong case for the Negro boys," I said. He nodded.
"They had a smart lawyer. But it was all over from the moment Victoria Price told her story. Don't need to go any further, I thought."
"If you'd been on the jury what verdict would you have given?"
"I'd 'a had to give the one they're goin' to bring in," he said gently and without heat. "Anyone would have to after hearin' her say that nigger raped her."
"What about the other testimony?"
"All that didn't count a mite with the jury," he said, still with the gentleness of one so sure of his ground that he has no need to protest. And I listening to him knew that in him I heard all the South speaking.
He was wrong in one thing. He expected the jury, the "hard convictors," to be out only an hour. They were out nearly twenty-four. There was among them one man who had stood out for life imprisonment.
Victoria Price, a "woman of easy virtue," just out of the workhouse where she had served a sentence for adultery, who had been convicted of vagrancy, who lived her promiscuous existence in hobo jungles, opened her hard mouth in condemnation of a Negro boy and all the rest of the trial became a farce.
The honorable, compassionate judge, the evidence of doctors, the testimony of Ruby Bates, all the intricate machinery of the law was thereafter functioning in a vacuum. It became a farce, a legal dance, a posturing. The masterly summation of Leibowitz need not have been made, nor even the judge's charge. All those things were as if nonexistent, a huge game, a gigantic keeping up of appearances.
MARY HEATON VORSE.
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