Celebrities such as Albert Einstein and actor James Cagney wrote letters and signed petitions in support. Langston Hughes wrote four poems and a one-act play about their plight. Blues musician Lead Belly honored them in song.
Their case inspired the writing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” to some extent.
The Scottsboro Boys made headlines across the country in 1931, but today most Americans have never heard of the nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. goods in the depths of the Great Depression. Hastily tried by an all-white jury, eight of the nine were sentenced to death, with the youngest, a 13-year-old boy, sentenced to life in prison. That would have been their fate had it not been for the storm of attention the case received and the legal intervention on behalf of the boys first by the Communist Party USA and later the NAACP and ACLU.
Appeals went all the way to the United States Supreme Court where their guilty verdicts were twice overturned. The state continued to reindict. Despite their innocence, the nine spent a total of 102 years in prison before being released.
The complex story of how nine young African Americans became a symbol of economic and racial oppression and an international phenomenon is told at the Scottsboro Boys Museum in the small northeast Alabama town of the same name. After closing at the start of the Covid pandemic, the museum remained closed until November 2022 while undergoing a major renovation and overhaul and the untimely death of its executive director.
“The original iteration of the Scottsboro Boys Museum was all spirit, but not a whole lot of content. The displays and exhibits were laid out in a haphazard and haphazard fashion, without any logical flow,” said Thomas Reidy, designer and acting director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, to Forbes.com.”Posters and framed photographs were pasted on the walls; some older newspapers and magazine covers were displayed in a glass case; a copy of the trial transcripts were displayed on a folding table with a copy of a photo of the defense attorney; a shelf with books about Scottsboro stood near the bathroom entrance. Yet the director and founder of the museum, Shelia Washington , had such a compelling personal story and such a passion for the case that she was able to take what little there was and turn it into a museum.
By cleaning up the Joyce Chapel that houses the museum and essentially starting from scratch, 24 informative reading panels of various sizes have been placed in the revitalized museum. The old chancel/altar features a tableau recreating a trial scene using mannequins of Haywood Patterson (accused) and Victoria Price (alleged victim), and contextual images of prominent figures in the case. The parking lot hasn’t been paved yet, that’s in the plans, but it’s what’s inside that matters most.
The updated presentation “places this watershed moment in the context of the modern civil rights movement,” Reidy says. “We love for our guests to reflect on what it was like to be a black teenager in 1931. We want them to read and experience the many racial and gender mythologies. They will watch exhibits about Jim Crow, poverty, sharecropping, convict tenancy, and more. before even getting into arrests and trials.
How come the Scottsboro Boys are largely unknown today?
“One of the reasons, I believe, has to do with the alignment of the case with the Communist International. The legal arm of the Comintern (Internal Labor Defense) represented the nine through the first trials and that is ‘in 1934 that she joined the NAACP and then later the ACLU,” Reidy said. “The Scottsboro Boys case became a contest of competing visions on how to achieve racial equality and socio-economic here in the United States. The ILD viewed blacks as part of a new global workforce that would pledge allegiance to communist ideology and eventually be soldiers of economic and political revolution. The NAACP sought to use existing American institutions to create opportunities for black people within its capitalist structure.
As the case progressed, World War II made headlines. After the war, the United States was not only plagued by racism and Jim Crow, but also by the Red Scare.
“During the 1950s and 1960s, segregationists and white supremacists attempted to brand black civil rights activists with the label of communists,” Reidy said. “Civil rights leaders did all they could to disassociate themselves from these labels and that probably meant the Scottsboro case was not very useful to them. American historians who wrote textbooks during the war cold also walked away from the case.
In this story, the communists are the good guys. Defenders of equality, the rule of law, fairness and humanity. It doesn’t work well in America, especially not in the mid-20se century, waving flags, “kill a coco for mama”, Cold War America.
With Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmett Till and Freedom Riders and the church bombings, there was no shortage of examples and spokespersons to demonstrate America’s racial inequality and advocate on its behalf. without dropping the Molotov cocktail of communism into the conversation. The Scottsboro Boys have been forgotten.
It changes. Importantly, the case is increasingly appearing in high school textbooks and college history courses according to Reidy. A precarious position given the country’s retreat in many areas towards further denials of its barbaric history of racial terror and systemic racism. With classrooms and school board meetings now at the forefront of America’s culture war, right-wing hysteria over a so-called “woke agenda,” critical race theory, bans on books, The Scottsboro Boys Affair, and Whether This Nation Chooses to Teach It or Hide It, illustrates the ongoing struggle between history told as unvarnished truth or whitewashed propaganda.
“Knowing their history helps us understand the issues facing our black communities today,” Reidy said. “Many of the obstacles faced by the nine continue to challenge minority groups. Jim Crow is not dead: it resounds loudly on far-right sites and on certain conservative news channels. Black men continue to be arrested at higher rates than the general population and receive longer prison sentences. They are exponentially more likely to be disenfranchised. Black adolescent males especially need to worry about being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and are more likely to be accidentally misidentified and falsely accused in a capital case. Today, blacks on average earn less money and experience higher unemployment rates than whites, just as they did in 1931. Lower education then and now puts black teenagers at a severe disadvantage. Scottsboro reminds us of the work that remains to be done.
Civil Rights Trail
The Scottsboro Boys Museum is one of more than 100 sites in 15 southern states comprising the United States Civil Rights Trail. Over 30 locations can be found in Alabama alone from the 16e Street Baptist Church where four black girls were murdered by white supremacists in a dynamite explosion at the Edmund Pettus “Bloody Sunday” Bridge and Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
The Civil Rights Trail has evolved since President Barack Obama urged the National Park Service in 2007 to create more diversity within the system and among the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Vision met reality in 2017 when Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism and author of “The Official Civil Rights Trail” (2021, Alabama Media Group), contacted researchers at State University of Georgia to ask them to identify places in the region that meet the minimum qualifications of the World Heritage Site.
GSU came back with a roster of 60; Southern state tourism officials added their picks and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018, the US Civil Rights Trail featuring 105 cultural sites and 15 National Park Service units was announced.
Stretching from Topeka, KS and Wilmington, DE to Sarasota and Vero Beach, FL, the trail highlights well-known stories and individuals like Greensboro, the lunch counter sit-ins of NC Woolworth and Muhammad Ali, to little-known ones, like Robert Russa Morton High School and Fannie Lou Hamer. Large cities–Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Washington, DC–small cities–Summerton, SC, Simpsonville, KY, Ruleville, MS.
“What happened here changed the world” is the slogan of the Civil Rights Trail. Exploring the trail will also change visitors.