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article imageOp-Ed: Scottsboro 1931 Revisited

By Alexander Baron     Mar 25, 2013 in Crime
Scottsboro - Eighty-two years ago today, nine young blacks in America's Deep South were arrested for raping two white women. This was the start of a years' long nightmare for them all.
The case of the Scottsboro Boys is thoroughly documented, but because the accused were all black and the alleged victims were both white, it is always viewed from the perspective of a racial injustice. There is though an alternative way of looking at it, which at the current time with the Landen Gambill case ongoing is especially relevant, namely through the prism of uncritical acceptance of any woman who cries rape, however unlikely her story, and the condemnation of the alleged rapist, even if he should be acquitted, or as in the latter, not even formally charged.
This notorious case has spawned half a dozen and more books, hundreds if not thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, including in academic journals, a number of documentaries, and a musical.
There is also a dedicated legal website which is maintained by the UMKC School of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In view of all the above and most especially of the lengthy trials and appeals, we can do no more than scratch the surface here, but the bare facts are as follows:
As Dan T. Carter wrote in SCOTTSBORO A Tragedy of the American South, Revised Edition, (1979), it started on March 25, 1931 at Paint Rock, Alabama when "a ragged crew of hoboes, one holding his bleeding head" claimed they'd been in a fight with "a bunch of Negroes" who had thrown them from a train. The complainants wanted to press charges.
Ten youths were then rounded up, one of them white. There were also two white girls: Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. Price gave her age as 21; in spite of this she was said already to have been married twice and to have parted company with her second husband. There were claims that she was somewhat older, although no documentation to this effect was produced at the time, and her actual age is not that important. Ruby Bates was just 17.
The Negroes arrested were indeed boys: the oldest, Charles Weems, was just 19; the youngest, Roy Wright, was 13 or perhaps only 12. The following day, a lynch mob surrounded the gaol; on March 30, the Grand Jury returned indictments on all nine, and the trial started on April 6, presided over by Judge A. E. Hawkins.
Seven members of the Scottsboro bar were assigned to the case, but one by one they withdrew until only Milo Moody remained. Nearly seventy years old, he was described by one pundit as a "doddering, extremely unreliable, senile individual who is losing whatever ability he once had."
Of the two alleged victims, Victoria Price was by far the most confident and compelling; one of the problems with any justice system - criminal or civil - is that a persuasive witness is not necessarily a truthful witness, while a truthful witness is not necessarily persuasive. At this trial, Ruby Bates claimed also to have been raped; she would later recant her testimony, but of course after conviction this is not so simple. Perjury charges may also follow depending on the circumstances.
Victoria Price claimed never to have had intercourse "with any white man but my husband"; doubtless there were those who took this claim literally noting that she had specified white men. Price was said to have been a prostitute, or at best a woman who supplemented her meagre earnings as a cotton spinner with prostitution. Of course, even a prostitute may be raped, but her story lacked credibility for other reasons, let us though not dwell on the sordid forensics. Naturally there was no such thing as DNA evidence at this time, but the science of criminology was sufficiently advanced for a doctor to establish that Price had not been "gang-banged" by a truckload of hoboes as she claimed, even in Hickville, USA.
The trial of the first 8 defendants ended with all of them convicted and sentenced to death. The trial of the youngest, Roy Wright, ended in a mistrial when some jurors held out for a death sentence even though the prosecution had asked only for life imprisonment.
Things were not looking good for the nine because four days before their arrest, Moses Daniels had been sent to the electric chair in Alabama for rape. He was a black youth aged only 19.
It was almost certainly though the Draconian sentences handed down in double quick time that galvanised others into action. Many people protested the death sentences, even if they agreed with the verdict. One lawyer deplored the "barbarous be applied to these children".
This support extended even to some white supremacists. As Dan Carter wrote: "Interracial leaders of the Deep South had two goals, segregation and justice, and it seldom occurred to most of them that the two might be incompatible."
One white Southerner put it like this: "The average white man, he said, is 'superior to the black man because he is black. My quarrel is not with superiority but with the method of asserting it at the expense of justice..."
Slowly, the case made its way to the US Supreme Court, where it was reversed by a vote of 7-2 (Powell v Alabama).
When the case went back to Scottsboro, the extremely fair Judge Horton made some telling observations about Victoria Price: "History, sacred and profane, and the common experience of mankind teach us that women of the character shown in this case are prone for selfish reasons to make false accusations both of rape and of insult upon the slightest provocation or even without provocation for ulterior purposes."
If a judge were to make such comments in a rape case today, he would find himself pilloried in the media, but Horton's observations were backed up with physical evidence. Neither of the alleged victims appeared to have suffered any meaningful injury, which is not what would have been expected had they been gang-raped by armed ruffians. And although he was only seventeen at the time, Willie Roberson was suffering from a serious case of syphilis, "with sores all over his genitals, that would have made intercourse very painful".
The retraction of Ruby Bates might have been more convincing had she not turned up at court so well dressed and obviously financed by people with political agendas, something the prosecutor alluded to with as much sarcasm as candour, but who can fault him?
There is much more to the story but the bottom line is that although eventually no death sentences were carried out, the Scottsboro Boys spent years behind bars for crimes that never happened. At worst there was a fairly minor violent confrontation with the white hoboes who lodged the original complaint. The last of those indicted died in 1989, aged 76. Victoria Price never recanted her testimony; she died in 1982.
Victoria Price in white  a colour she had no right to wear. Although she was married twice  it is do...
Victoria Price in white, a colour she had no right to wear. Although she was married twice, it is doubtful if either of her husbands took her home to meet mother; Ruby Bates was her understudy, although clearly, unlike Price, her heart wasn't in it.
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Even after they left prison, the Scottsboro Boys suffered hard times. Andy Wright was released in 1946 but ended up back in gaol because of a parole violation - moving out of the state. In 1951, he was accused of rape again, this time of a girl aged just 13. He was acquitted by an all-white jury after spending eight months in gaol. This false rape claim appears to have been personally motivated; clearly his accuser and her mother were aware of his history. Andy Wright's brother Roy was the youngest of the unfortunates. After his release he joined the army and also served in the merchant marine. He married, but in 1959 he murdered his wife and then committed suicide. None of them received any financial compensation for their ordeal, and it is little wonder that some of them lived dysfunctional lives after release.
Whatever racial spin is put on this case, and however great was the actual animosity towards the Scottsboro Boys by working class whites, the fact remains that none of their suffering would have happened had it not been for the false allegations of rape levelled at them by Ruby Bates, and glibly by Victoria Price, the latter of whom was prepared to see them hanged over what was at worse a punch up that hadn't involved her.
Yes, times were hard for many people of all races in the 1930s, but that hardly mitigates what she did.
Thirteen years later, the UK had its own Scottsboro Boys case when a black American soldier serving here was sentenced to death by a military court for the rape of a white woman. Although there is not a great deal of documentation readily accessible, reading between the lines of contemporaneous reports, this was a case in which there was a genuine sexual encounter in which money changed hands, and of the usual sordid nature, something that appears to have been known to the local folk, if not to the American military.
The first of our press reports is entitled:
Death Sentence for Attack
On Combe Down Woman
, and it appeared in the Bath and Wilts Chronicle and Herald, LATE EXTRA, Monday, May 29, 1944 at page 4.
This is a lengthy article on the court martial of a "coloured soldier". (This euphemism was in universal use throughout the UK up until about the late 1960s, and was used most often in reference to blacks). The unnamed soldier was found guilty of rape the previous Thursday and sentenced to hang. A colonel presided over the eight officer court, which included one "coloured" member: Captain Cullison prosecuted; Major Drew defended. The alleged victim was said to be a 33 year old mother of two who claimed to have been assaulted at knifepoint, presumably sexually, although rape was not mentioned. Her husband testified for the prosecution. The soldier had signed a confession but claimed it had been beaten out of him by the Military Police. As if they'd do such a thing.
"I just had one blind flash. It was as if somebody had kicked me from behind. They picked me up. shook me and tried to make me stand to attention again. They filled a long paper out, and asked me to sign it, saying: 'You will sign. I put my name to one or two sheets of paper. I don't know what was on the sheets. The men threatened me." [Quoted verbatim].
The alleged incident was said to have happened late at night. The woman claimed to have got out of bed to show the soldier the way back to Bristol after he knocked on her downstairs window. His defence was, basically that she had sold herself for the usual reasons; she wanted two pounds; he gave her one pound.
After Private Leroy Henry was convicted and sentenced to death, that might have been the end of things, but an appeal was put out by the good folk of Bath, and according to Ald. S. Day in the June 5 edition of the same paper: "Persons of all shades of opinion and social status have signed [the petition]." [The paper's quotes.] The back page of this issue (LATE EXTRA), contained a big advertisement:
Matter of Urgency
Alderman Day and Jack Allan organised the petition, which by that time had reached 31,832 signatures; there were also many letters of support.
The case was also reported in the Daily Mirror, a major national newspaper at that time. Although the reporter did not challenge the verdict, he did say that a British jury might have decided otherwise and that there was a widespread feeling of unease at the man being sentenced to death.
The result was that General and future President Eisenhower intervened, and Private Henry was returned to duty.
The most remarkable feature of this case is the date it happened. At this very time, servicemen were being maimed and killed in Europe at the height of the bloodiest war in history, yet the good people of this West Country town were prepared to lobby the highest American military authority to spare the life of one soul over a perceived injustice, even though some, perhaps many, will have believed Leroy Henry guilty.
Again, it is possible to view this as a race issue; certainly it highlights the different way the thorny issue of race has always been treated in the UK from the US, but the bottom line is that it is about justice and human decency. The former is something that can require hard choices: do we convict a man who might just be innocent, or do we free a possible murderer so that he may escape justice and perhaps kill again? Although rape is far less serious than murder, and is no longer capital in the US even under military discipline, false allegations can and do destroy innocent lives. Can it really be so terrible to demand some sort of corroboration before a man is charged with much less convicted of so serious a crime?
Willie Roberson  in spite of his young age - seventeen - he was eaten up with venereal disease  whic...
Willie Roberson, in spite of his young age - seventeen - he was eaten up with venereal disease, which would have made even unforced sex an unpleasant experience. All the same, he was convicted of rape.
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This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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