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Remembering the First American Civil Rights Struggle, Long Before the Sixties:
A Review of a New Book of Images of the Scottsboro Boys


Friday, Sep. 6, 2002

The phrase "The Scottsboro Boys" holds an enduring but second-tier status in the American cultural lexicon. Nearly everyone recalls the phrase, most identify it with civil rights, yet very few can place the Boys' rise to prominence in the correct decade, and hardly anyone (in my informal sample at least) knows the story in any depth.

Like much of the civil rights history of the first half of the last century, the story of the Scottsboro Boys has faded in our collective memories. And more generally, the earlier civil rights struggles have been dramatically overshadowed by the towering achievements of the civil rights struggle of the post-war decades.

Into this breach comes a voice - two voices in fact - from the past: Lin Shi Kahn and Tony Perez. Their work, Scottsboro, Alabama: A Story in Linoleum Cuts, was produced in Seattle in 1935; the current publishers know nothing of its two authors.

A Work of Art That Tells the Scottsboro Boys' Story

The book surfaced in a collection of materials donated to New York University from the papers of an old-line radical. As the subtitle would suggest, this is less a book than a work of art; it is a story of the Scottsboro Boys told in searing black and white prints, the original medium for the artistry having been a block of linoleum.

Who were the Scottsboro Boys? They were nine young black men, with ages ranging from 13 to 21, who lived in the depths of the South in the depths of the Great Depression. On March 25, 1931, the "Boys," along with a group of young white men and two white women, were all hoboes hopping the same freight train bound for Birmingham, Alabama.

A disturbance broke out between the black and white men, and a number of the white men were ejected from the train. The white men then called ahead to summon the police to meet the train at the next station stop - Scottsboro, Alabama. That much is more or less agreed.

The Scottsboro Boys' First Trials and Appeals: From the Grotesque to the Victorious

The first trials of the Scottsboro Boys - and there were eleven separate trials over half a dozen years - were by any measure, a grotesque joke. On April 6, 1931, the capital rape charges against the first batch of defendants proceeded to trial. At arraignment, the judge appointed "all the members of the local bar" as counsel for the men on trial - then picked one out of the stands on the morning of the trial to actually stand at the defense table. No actual legal counsel was given; the appointment was a sham to satisfy the appeals court. A verdict for the state followed.

The fate of the nine condemned men men became a celebrated cause, and they themselves became a political hot potato in a struggle between the International Labor Defense ("ILD"), founded by the Communist Party USA, and the NAACP. ILD fielded Samuel Leibowitz, a preeminent criminal defense lawyer from New York.

Meanwhile, the NAACP arrived in Scottsboro with a living legal legend, Clarence Darrow. But Darrow's eminence notwithstanding, the ILD had an inside track with the condemned and secured the right to represent the "Boys."

The ILD won a glorious victory for the "Boys" before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1932 case of Powell v. Alabama. There, the Court held that with its sham defense counsel appointment, Alabama had denied the Scottsboro Boys their constitutionally-secured rights to counsel and the due process of law.

As a result, a second set of trials ensued - this time with Leibowitz as trial counsel.

A Second Set of Scottsboro Trials Leads to A Second Supreme Court Decision

By this time, one of the two victims had recanted her testimony and straightforwardly admitted that the prosecution was a frame-up. Nevertheless, a second set of all-white juries returned a second set of verdicts for the prosecution.

And then, with its quiet majesty, the Supreme Court intervened yet again. This time the defense strategy was to challenge the jury rolls in Alabama - which, despite a facially race-neutral statute, were generated in an invidiously race-based way. Indeed, they had never resulted in the service of a single black person on a single venire, let alone a jury! In Norris v. Alabama the Court struck down the system and the convictions were set aside a second time.

In a Hollywood world, the stage would have been set for vindication: victory at the third set of trials. Various foibles intervened, however.

Leibowitz split off from the ILD, though he remained with the case, after the ILD had been caught attempting to bribe the second accuser into recanting her story. The third trials went forward, with both public attention and the proceedings inside the courtroom at a fever pitch, but again before all-white juries.

The New York Times provided daily coverage of the trials. It recounted, for instance, that the prosecutor not only made the stereotypical invocation of threatened southern womanhood, but suggested it had been threatened not only by black men, but by the "Jew from New York" sent to defend them.

And then, confoundingly, it was all over. A plea bargain was struck. Several of the men walked free - having sat in jail more through more than six years' worth of judicial wrangling, their pleas only encompassed time served. Meanwhile, the others received agreed-upon sentences.

Ultimately, both sides declared victory and the Times was left to say: "Thus, in a tangle of inconsistencies, ended the famous Scottsboro case."

When Art and History Converge: Contemporaneous Images Tell the Story

Against this extraordinary backdrop, A Story in Linoleum Cuts stands as both an extraordinarily compelling piece of art, and a genuine historical artifact. That said, "historical" is not the same as history. These prints must be understood as what they are: visually and emotionally powerful propaganda.

The book is an ILD puff piece - replete with images of the black and white working classes joined in hands with hammer and sickle between them. At the same time, the artists' primary visual target - the courts, depicted as lackeys of capitalism - get a profoundly bum rap.

A non-propaganda account would likely have castigated the trial courts, but applauded the U.S. Supreme Court's two decisions to intervene.

That the "Boys" had to serve any time in jail was a profound miscarriage of justice, given the victim's recantation and the sham nature of their trials. But while the Alabama trial courts and their jurors were individiously racist, at least heroic lawyers and the nation's highest court did all they could to prevent that. We can be proud that the nation's most prominent lawyers sought to take on this case. The Boys' story is both one of evil and one of hope - yet the artwork suggests it is only the former.

None of this criticism, however, strips the power from the artistry of A Story in Linoleum Cuts. For a lawyer, the book makes the case of the Scottsboro Boys all the more worthy of study.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C. His email address is For a fascinating colection of source materials (including trial transcripts) and contemporary secondary materials relating to the case, Herrington recommends this website.

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