THE SCOTTSBORO FREIGHT-CAR CASE

Edmund Wilson

Chattanooga, Tennessee: old sordid Southern brick buildings, among which a few hotels, insurance companies and banks have expanded into big modern bulks, as if by sporadic effort; business streets that suddenly lapse into nigger cabins; a surrounding wilderness of mills that manufacture some 1,500 different articles, from locomotives to coffins and snuff; and a vast smudge of nigger dwellings- almost a third of the population are Negroes. "Hell's half-Acre" in the mill district is a place where people don't dare go at night: the saying is that among the niggers there is an average of a murder a day. In Chattanooga, the manufacturers, enslaving the Negro almost as completely as the planters did before the Civil War, have kept him in his African squalor and produced a new type of squalor: Southern slackness mixed with factory grime.

The night of last March 24, two white girls from Huntsville, Alabama, came into Chattanooga in a box-car - according to the testimony of one of them, in the company of several boys. Both had been workers in the old Huntsville cotton mills, and both had apparently from an early age been practicing prostitution to make a little money on the side. They are alleged to have lived indifferently among Negroes and whites, and one of them is said to have been arrested for "hugging" a Negro on the street. Victoria Price, the older girl, said she had been married twice; Ruby Bates, the younger one, said she had never been married. Both of them "dipped snuff."

According to the girls' story, they had spent that night in Chattanooga at the house of a woman they knew. They left the next morning at about 10:45 on a freight train bound for Memphis, traveling in a low roofless car of the kind that is known as a "gondola." The gondola was about two-thirds full of gravel. The girls had bobbed hair and wore overalls. Riding in the same car were about half a dozen white boys.

At Stevenson, Alabama, just across the state line, about twenty colored boys got in and scattered themselves through the train. They were a miscellaneous lot of hoboes - representing, like the white boys and girls, the bottom layer of that far-Southern society. Only one of the nine afterwards arrested was able even to write his name. Certain of these Negro boys said that they were on their way to Memphis to look for jobs on the docks. In some cases, they were friends who were traveling together; in others, they did not know one another.

What happened on the train is uncertain. But apparently one of the white boys, walking along the top of a box-car, stumbled over one of the Negroes and threatened to throw him off the train. At any rate, ill feeling was roused, and presently the colored boys came trooping down into the gondola. One of them had a gun and another a knife, and the white boys were outnumbered. Some kind of fight evidently took place, and the white boys either jumped off or were put off the train - all except one, who slipped down between the cars and was rescued by one of the Negroes.

The group who had been put off were furious, and one of them had a cut head. This boy went to the nearest railroad station and told the telegrapher there that the niggers had tried to murder them; and the telegrapher, very indignant, telephoned ahead along the line to have the Negroes taken off the train.

So when the train arrived at Paint Rock, it was boarded by the sheriff with his deputies, and nine of the boys were arrested. The others had disappeared. The Negroes supposed at first that they were being arrested for bumming a ride. One boy was found in an empty car, where he said he had been riding by himself ever since the train left Chattanooga. Four others had been traveling on an oil car and said that there had been a disturbance but they hadn't known what it was about. It seems reasonable to assume that, if violence had taken place, the responsible boys had escaped. The one with the pistol was never found; beyond the cut head of the boy who had complained, no evidence of foul play was discovered.

But there were the two white girls alone on the train with a gang of niggers. The authorities demanded of the girls whether the niggers hadn't attacked them. This the girls at first denied; but under pressure of repeated questioning, accompanied by a certain amount of prompting, they confessed that they had both been raped. The doctor who examined the girls found proof that they had been having sexual intercourse but no reason to conclude that they had been roughly handled, except for a small bruise on one of them which might well have been caused by riding on gravel.

The boys were put in jail at Paint Rock, but when a mob gathered and threatened to lynch them, they were removed to the town of Gadsden. In their cells, they went mad with fury - yelled wildly and beat on the doors and tore up their beds and bedding. They told their lawyers that they had been led from their cells at Gadsden by a lieutenant of the National Guard, then handcuffed together in pairs and systematically clubbed by people brought in from the streets. On April 6, they were put on trial at Scottsboro, Alabama, the county seat of Jackson County.

Scottsboro is a small town, and the people there have little excitement: it was a long time since anything had come their way so sensational as nine niggers accused of rape. The day of the trial was a festival: it happened also to be fair day and horse-trading day. Though the normal population of Scottsboro is only about 1,500, there were at least 10,000 people in town. The poor whites had come in with their guns, prepared to slaughter the boys then and there, and they might very well have done so if the Alabama branch of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation had not persuaded the Governor to send out the State Militia, who guarded the trials with fixed bayonets, machine-guns and tear-gas bombs. What with the bugle-music of changing guard, The Star Spangled Banner and Dixie played by a band from the hoisery mill and a parade of twenty-eight Ford trucks, with a phonograph and amplifier, organized by an enterprising Ford agent who had taken advantage of the occaision to try to pick up his slackening sales, the town was in a delirium of gaiety.

In the meantime, inside the courthouse, Ruby Bates and Virginia Price were testifying that the colored boys had held them down in the gondola and raped them; each had been raped by exactly six. Ruby Bates could not identify her assailants; but Virginia Price rose to the occasion better. She turned out to enjoy the limelight, developed a sense of her role and - very much to Ruby's resentment - played the younger girl off the stage. Spurred on by the prosecutor's insistence, she got to the point, at one of the trials, of undertaking to identify the boys in the order in which thcv had attacked her. "Yonder he sits! Yonder he sits" she would declare, as the State's attorney went through the half dozen - though at other times she admittcd she wasn't sure. At any rate, the crowd roared: the hammering of the judge couldn't quiet them.

Three of the Negro boys testified that they had seen other Negroes attack the girls - though they afterwards told the lawyers that they had been induced to do this by the court officials, who had promised to shoot them in the courtroom if they didn't, but to have them let off if they did. The white boy who had remained on the train had testified before the Grand Jury that he had seen the Negro boys having intercourse with the girls, but was not called by the State at the trials because - as the prosecutor is said to have complained - he couldn't be pcrsuadcd to say that he had seen the girls "raped." The other white boys had either fled or been told to disappear: at any rate, they were never produced. The doctor in that Southern courtroom was asked whether the semen he had found in the girls had been that of a colored or a white man.

Eight of the boys were immediately found guilty and sentenced to death in the electric chair. At the announcement of the first two verdicts, the brass band struck up outside, and the crowd enthusiastically applauded: the jury had sat through the trials with the crowd in full view through the windows. Only the youngest boy - fourteen (the oldest was only twenty) - got off with a mistrial. The prosecutor, on account of his youth, had asked only for life imprisonment. Yet, notwithstanding this clemency of the State, eight of the jury, in this case, too, demanded electrocution. One of the other boys had also said originally that he was only fourteen, but he later asserted he was nineteen. Pressure had been brought to bear: it had been feared that he would get off with the penitentiary.

It had, of course, been exceedingly difficult to find anyone to defend the boys. Each of the seven lawyers who composed the Scottsboro bar had in turn been assigned to the defendants, and all execpt one had got out of it. One of these lawyers, attorney for the Alabama Power Company, is said to have remarked that the Power Company had juice enough to burn all nine of the defendants. The only one who was willing to take their case - even for formal decency- was Mr. Milo C. Moody. Mr. Moody is, from all reports, by way of being the town heretic. He has always made something of a practice of taking up unpopular positions, but he is old now and, in competition with the brass band and the Ford agents amplifier, was not able to do much for his clients.

In the meantime, however, the Scottsboro case had been attracting the attention of an intelligent Negro physician in Chattanooga, Dr. P. A. Stephens. Dr. Stephens brought it to the attention of the Interdenominational A11iance of Colored Ministers, and they raised the inadequate sum of $50.08 and appealed to Mr. Stephen R. Roddy, a Chattanooga attorney, to undertake the defense of the boys. Mr. Young is young and conventional; yet not so conventional that he would not consent - for little renumeration - to make a trip down to Scottshoro and see whether anything could be done. As soon as he appeared in the courtroom, Judge Hawkins hastened to announce that if Mr. Roddy would conduct the defense, the Scottsboro Bar would be released. Mr. Roddy replied, however, that he had been merely sent to observe. Fresh from getting through the crowd and the guard and with the music of the brass band in his cars, he decided that there was no hope for a postponement, and, a member of the Tennessee bar, he was unfamiliar with Alabama procedure. He asked to be associated with Mr. Moody; and he put on the stand, at the end of the trials, the commander of the National Guard and one of the court officials, and had them testify that the cheering of the crowd outside which followed the announcement of the first two verdicts had been so loud that the jurors could not have failed to hear it.

But Dr. Stephens and the colored ministers were not the only people interested in the Scottsboro case. The Communists had recently been active in Chattanooga, and on February 10, three of them had been arrested for an attempt to hold a street demonstration. They were tried during the last week of March and all found guilty of violating the Sedition Statute, a law which, dating originally from 1715, had never before been applied, construed or noticed during the whole hundred and thirty-six years of Tennessee's history. A motion for a new trial, however, was made, and on April 18, Judge Lusk of the criminal court, in an opinion which - though handed down in the state that had declared illegal the teaching of the theory of evolution - might serve as a model to other courts, set aside the verdict of the jury and granted the defendants a new trial. He pointed out that these latter had been arrested before they had had a chance to make any subversive speeches, and that in any case "membership in the Communist party and adherence to its principles" had been "recognized as lawful" by the admission of its candidates to the Tennessee ballots. "This case," Judge Lusk concluded, "has given the Court much concern. As a lover of the institutions of this state and nation, I look with deep concern upon the activities of subversive agitators of every sort. But, in meeting these movements, we must demonstrate our superiority to them by keeping, ourselves, within the law. The best way, in my judgment, to combat Communism, or any other movement inimical to our institutions, is to show, if we can, that the injustices which they charge against us are, in fact, non-existent."

In the meantime, the Communists in Chattanooga had heard about the arrest of the nine negroes and had gone down to Scottsboro the day of the trial. One of their principal aims at the present time is to enlist the support of the Southern Negroes - to whom they have been preaching the doctrine, arrived at from analogy with the Ukraine and completely unrealistic in America, of "self-determination for the Black Belt."

The Communists assigned to Chattanooga, therefore, seized upon the Scottsboro case as an opening wedge for realizing this long-range program. Their first step was to have their defense organization, the International Labor Defense, send Judge Hawkins a telegram which amazed him and made him angry: this message described the cases against the Negrocs as a "frame-up° and a "legal lynching" and said that the ILD would hold the Judge personally responsible. After the trial, Mr. Roddy says he was visited by ILD representatives and asked to conduct a spectacular defense. According to Mr. Roddy, they went through all the gestures of taking him up into a high place and showing him the kingdoms of the earth. They told him he had the chance to make a national reputation, to become a second Clarence Darrow - a dream, one gathers, entirely alien to Mr. Roddy's ambitions. He asked how they proposed to pay him. They explained that they would raise the money by holding meetings among the Negroes and getting them to contribute to a defense fund. This idea seemed distasteful to Mr. Roddy. He and the ILD did not inspire one another with confidence.

The ILD went next to the attorney who had so efficiently defended the arrested Communists. Mr. George W. Chamlee is quite a different type from Mr. Roddy. A shrewd lawyer and a clever man, humorous, worldly-wise, deep in the politics of the state and able to see every side of every question, he is by way of being a local character; he works by himself, forms his own opinions and pursues his own ends, and is not infrequently found in opposition to the conventional elements of the community. Some years ago, he made himself conspicuous by defending street-car strikers; and he has represented both Negroes and radicals in cases which it would perhaps have been impossible to get any other Chattanooga lawyer to take. It is true that, its a candidate for office, he has undoubtedly derived political support both from the Negroes and from organized labor. And, on the other hnnd, he once scored an equal triumph by getting off a group of Tennesseeans convicted of lynching, whose cases had been appealed to the Supreme Court. At the recent trial of the Communist agitators, when the prosecutor attempted to make much of the fact that the defendants were avowedly in favor of the overthrow of the government and had foresworn loyalty to the Annerican flag, Mr. Chamlee reminded his opponent that both their grandfathers, when they had fought in the Civil War, had repudiated the federal government and professed allegiance to another flag.

Mr. Chamlee, at home and in the Communist press, is given the title of "General"; but this means merely that he once held the office of attorney general of Hamilton County. In the last Democratic primaries, he ran for renomination against Mr. Roddy, the Democratic county chairman. Both were defeated by a third candidate, but Mr. Roddy got more votes than Mr. Chamlee - and it may be that political rivalries have contributed to the antagonisms which have developed in the course of the Scottsboro case.

At any rate, the situation has been complicated by still another element. Dr. Stephens has been approached by the International Labor Defense, and at first he had cooperated with them. But their obvious tone of propaganda had strongly aroused his suspicions, and he and the colored ministers had broken off relations with them. Dr. Stephens had written for advice to the headquarters in New York of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the result was two defense campaigns not merely separate but mutually hostile.

Precisely what is the history of the split between the ILD and the NAACP is difficult to find out. But its underlying causes are plain. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a non-political organization, which, under the leadership of Mr. Waltcr White, has in many cases been admirably successful in protecting the legal rights of Negroes. In the Arkansas riot cases of 1925, in which seventy-nine Negro sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who had attempted to sue their landlords for money due them, had been charged with insurrection and sentenced either to long prison terms or to death, the NAACP fought the verdicts and caused the Supreme Court to reverse its decision (handed down in the Leo Frank case) and to hold that if it could be shown that a trial had been dominated by the fear of a mob, the conviction could be overruled. The NAACP works quietly and by conventional methods. Its general tendency is to encourage the Negroes to approximate to white respectability, in order that they may compete in the same fields and claim the same rights as white citizens. The aims of the Communists have been indicated. The rupture between the two organizations was inevitable by their very nature, as seems always to be the case when Communists and bourgeois liberals attempt to work together. Whatever the immediate occasion of the break, the result is that the liberals end by accusing the Communists of disingenuous or Jesuitical tactics, of diverting money raised for special defense funds to Communist propaganda, of prejudicing their particular causes by waving the red flag too openly and of being willing and even eager to make martyrs for their atrocity-mongering press, which aims to awake the class consciousness of its readers; while the Communists, on their side, accuse the liberals of insincerity or timidity, of sacrificing the success of their causes by sticking too closely to the conventional machinery and trusting to the fair play of capitalist courts, of being unwilling to deal with fundamentals for fear of antagonizing the rich persons or foundations who subsidize them and of attempting to mislead the proletariat as to the latter's genuine interests in order to safeguard their own bourgeois positions. In this particular case, the NAACP pointed out that it was not the "bosses" but the white working class who had forced the issue at Scottsboro, as it had been not white bourgeois but workers who had lynched Negroes in Alabama, persecuted Negro peons in Arkansas, stolen the Negro school funds in South Carolina and in general excluded the Negroes from their unions, with the result that, later on, at the time when white wages were being raised and white working conditions bettered, the Negroes were left out in the cold; whereas higher education for Negroes had been made possible only by the power trust and the steel trust, Standard Oil, the mail order chain stores and the capitalist Christian Church. To this the Communists retorted that the capitalists of these organizations did not give a damn about the Negroes; that what they were aiming at was to exploit them as strikebreakers and underpaid labor, and to make sure that the educated Negro leaders were conservatives who would stick on their side.

Walter White and William Pickens, the secretary of the NAACP went to Scottsboro and Chattanooga and took steps to engage new counsel. A ludicrous and pathetic contest began between the Communists and the NAACP to get the parents of the sentenced boys to endorse their respective organizations and to authorize their lawyers to defend them. The NAACP accused the Communists of having carried off certain members of the families of the defendants and of keeping them incommunicado; and the Communists charged the NAACP with having induced certain of the Negroes to sign statements which they could not read and which had never been read to them. Before the motion for a new trial had been made, the bewildered prisoners and their relatives had been persuaded to sign and repudiate a variety of documents. The Communists have had some success in exploiting the mothers of the boys, whom they produce at their moneyraising meetings, and, according to the NAACP, have resorted to bogus mothers when they were not able to get the real ones. One of the genuine mothers, returning to Chattanooga, wrote as follows to her entertainers - I quote from the Daily Worker:

"Well I sure miss you all but I was just homesick. I'm sorry I was that way, but after all I love the Reds. I can't be treated any better than the Reds has treated me. And I am a Red too. I tell the white and I tell the black I am not getting back of nothing else. I mean to be with you all as long as l live . . . . Well, I am looking for you to come to see me like you said. You can't realize how highly I appreciate the kindness you all did for me . . . . I hope next time I be to see you all I will be less worried. I never stayed away from my family that long for I think my children don't get along without me . . . . Give all the Reds my love for I love them all . . . .
"From one of the Reds, Janie Patterson."

Another wrote as follows:
"My dear friend, organ of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. This is Azie Powell's mother. I was away from home at the time those men was out to see me. I was out trying to collect some money what a man owes me to defend for my boy . . . .

"From birth I has work hard plowing, farming by myself for a living for my children. Have had no help supporting them. So sorry, deeply sorry to my heart that my boy was a framed up in this. I am almost crazy can't eat, can't sleep, just want to work all the time, so weak I don't see how I can stand much longer. Living on the will of the Lord. .

"Azie was raised on a farm, he was born on a farm, got one little girl, seven years of age already has heart trouble. Have two boys, two girls in all with no father assisting. Poor me, poor me, so burdened down with trouble, if I could only see my baby Azie once more. Lord have mercy on my poor boy in Birmingham. My boy is only fourteen, will be fifteen November 10.

"Poor me, worked hard every day of my life, can't make a living hardly to save my life . . . .
"From Josephine Powell, Atlanta, Ga.
"P.S.-Not knowing what to say or what to do for the best."

The Communists held parades and mass meetings, broke up meetings of the NAACP, themselves had a demonstration in Harlem broken up by the police, made indignant protests to the President, sent a hundred telegrams to the Governor and organized an "All-Southern Conference," at which the organizers were arrested.

Two parties appeared among the Negroes: those who were persuaded by the arguments of the Communists or were excited by Communism as a new form of revivalism (the meetings were often held in churches) and those who, from conservatism, caution or willingness to mind their place, were opposed to the agitation. In one case, a married woman named Bessy Ball attended a Communist meeting and was elected a delegate to the All-Southern Conference. Her husband had been listening to the counsels of the respectable Negro preachers, and when she got home, he beat her up. It was true she had gone to the meeting with the man who lived next door. When their daughter had Ball arrested, he was congratulated on his conduct by the judge, who advised him to use a shotgun on the Reds if they gave him any trouble. Bessy Ball was fined $10. The house next door was raided, and her friend and his mother were arrested, but eventually released. They went home and were immediately visited by their neighbor, Mr. Ball, who had been given carte blanche by the Court to wage a private war on the Reds. Finding a copy of the Liberator, the Negro Communist paper, he proceeded to tear it up; and when the Communist mother protested, he hit her on the head with a wooden block. Later, he shot at the son with the shotgun prescribed by the judge. Both he and the son were arrested on charges of assault with intent to kill. Mr. Ball was soon released, but the Communist was kept in jail.

The more docile Negroes were scared. It is reported that since the Scottsboro trials there have been practically no Negroes riding Southern freight trains, and at the time when feeling was running high, the white people in Scottsboro say they almost had to shake hands with their servants every morning to convince them that they meant them no harm. The white Southerners, of course, resented both the Communists and the NAACP as impertinent meddling from the North. On one occasion, the Jackson County Sentinal announced that it would "have no editorial this week on the 'Negro Trial' matter. We just couldn't do one without getting mad as hell." "The International Labor Defense of New Yawk and Rusha" had told them that they "must have Negro jurors on any jury trying the blacks if they were to get 'their rights.' A Negro juror in Jackson County would be a curiosity - and some curiosities are embalmed, you know." And the International Labor Defense received the following telegram from the Alabama Ku Klux Klan: "You Negroes are invited to Alabama. We want your scalp along with the nine we already have. And we'll get you as well as any one else who is a party to the telegram sent South in behalf of the nine Negroes to burn. Read this to your entire body."

A change of venue to another county was first promised by the Court, then denied. A hearing on motions for new trials was set for June 5. Mr. Roddy, Mr. Chamlee and Mr. Joseph Brodsky, an ILD attorney, all appeared in court. Some of the jurors were cross-examined with a view to making them admit that they had been aware, during the trials, of the brass band and the demonstration, and Mr. Chamlee filed a motion for new trials, asserting that the indictments were vague and mentioned no exact facts or dates; that bias had been present in the case; that the defendants had had no chance to employ counsel; that the jury had been prejudiced and had included no Negroes; that the defense were in possession of newly discovered evidence; that it had been impossible at the trials to question Virginia Price as to whether or not she practiced prostitution; that the Negroes at the time they were arrested had displayed no consciousness of guilt; that the State had failed to produce the white boys; that there must have been on the train from fifteen to eighteen colored boys, and that if any crime had been committed, there was no certainty it had not been committed by the boys who got away; that the ride from Stevenson to Paint Rock could only have lasted forty or fifty minutes and that it would hardly have been possible for a fight and twelve rapes to have taken place within so short a time.

The hearing was the occasion in Scottsboro for another popular demonstration. Mr. Chamlee, when he went to the courthouse, brought a bodyguard along, and Mr. Brodsky was made to stay in the building till two or three hours after the hearing was over, by which time the crowd had gone home. Judge Hawkins, who, for reelection, has to depend on the Jackson County voters, has denied the motions for new trials.

The defense will appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Alabama, and if they are unsuccessful there, will appeal it to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the meantime, the Communists in Alabama have continued to work at their program. In the Southern states, the Negro sharecroppers are held in a state of peonage which differs little from their original state of slavery. The Communists have stimulated them to organize, and on July 16, under Communist tutelage, in a church at Camp Hill, a Sharecroppers' Union held a meeting of which one of the objects announced was to protest over the Scottsboro case. A white posse came to break it up, and as a result the sheriff was shot, a Negro picket was shot and killed, four Negroes disappeared - presumably lynched - and thirty-four Negroes were arrested.

date


back to The Camera Eye | The Ethics of Living Jim Crow