Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Webster Smith and The Scottsboro Boys.

No crime in American history-- let alone a crime that never occurred-- produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine Black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931.
That was before the court-martial of Cadet Webster Smith in 2006 at the United States Coast Guard Academy.
Over the course of the next two decades, the struggle for justice of the Scottsboro Boys, as the Black teens were called, made celebrities out of anonymities, wasted lives and produced heroes.
No one deserves more blame for the long ordeal suffered by the Scottsboro Boys than does a lower class white woman from Huntsville named Victoria Price. It was her accusation of gang rape aboard a Chattanooga to Memphis freight train, repeated in trial after trial for six years, that led to one of the most protracted and tumultuous legal battles in American history.
Price was the promiscuous, hard drinking, hard swearing daughter of a Huntsville widow who lived in a poor, racially mixed section of town. She made love in box cars and fields, slept in hobo jungles, and rode the rails in a pair of beaten overalls. A defense affidavit of a one-time neighbor of Price's described her as a common street prostitute of the lowest type, a woman who would be out at all hours of the night and curse and swear, and be a general nuisance to the Black population. Another acquaintance rounded up by the defense said he saw Price drunk and in a fight with another woman and she had her clothes up around her body and she had on only two garments, and exposed her private parts. A third acquaintance swore he had overheard Price asking Black men the size of their private parts.
Ruby Bates was, like Victoria Price, a poor Huntsville millworker who became one of the two accusers of the Scottsboro Boys. But, unlike Price, Bates later recanted her story of rape aboard a Chattanooga to Memphis freight train, and went on to actively campaign for the release of the jailed black defendants.
Bates had a tough childhood. Her mother was a prostitute. Her father was a shiftless drunk who would beat her, her mother, and her siblings. When her father was jailed for horse-whipping her brother, the family left and began to move from one northern Alabama town to another before settling in Huntsville, where, at age fifteen, Ruby took a job in the Margaret cotton mill. Bates lived with her family in an unpainted wooden shack in worst part of Huntsville. Her family was the only white family on the block. Contrary to popular belief, segregation did not reach to the lower rungs of southern society, and Ruby lived, played, and slept with Blacks.
Bates was frequently described as a notorious prostitute. A defense affidavit of a resident of Chattanooga, where Bates rented a room for a time in a boarding house, stated that Bates often had Black men in her room all night, and would sleep with as many as three men in an afternoon.
As a prosecution witness in the first trials in Scottsboro, Bates proved to be much less effective that the brasher and more confidant Price. Shy, inarticulate, and insecure, Bates was a poor liar. Moreover, she could not identify any of her attackers and failed to corroborate Price on key points of her testimony.
Bates was a surprise witness for the defense in the second Haywood Patterson trial. She recanted her story of the rape, saying she was encouraged by Price to make the false accusation as a way of deflecting attention from possible charges of vagrancy or Mann Act (crossing state lines for immoral purposes) that they otherwise may have faced when they were among those rounded up by the posse in Paint Rock.
After the trial, Bates headed northeast and joined the Defense campaign for release of the Scottsboro Boys.
JUSTICE DELAYED is JUSTICE DENIED. But, It's Better Late Than Never!!
Alabama's parole board granted posthumous pardons Thursday, 21 November 2013, in the notorious "Scottsboro Boys" case of the 1930s, which became a potent symbol of racial injustice and led to landmark legal decisions.
The three men pardoned— Charles Weems, Andy Wright and Haywood Patterson —were among nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. Within weeks, eight were convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries in Scottsboro, Ala., amid a racially charged atmosphere. The judge declared a mistrial for 13-year-old Roy Wright.
(Four of the defendants in the `Scottsboro Boys' case are led into a Decatur, Ala., courtroom on April 6, 1933.AP)
What ensued was a yearslong legal battle that included three rounds of trials. The men spent varying amounts of time in prison, but all eventually were paroled, pardoned or freed. The last defendant died in 1989.
The Scottsboro case triggered outrage and protests that some consider a precursor to the civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. It reached the U.S. Supreme Court twice, yielding significant rulings on the right to legal counsel and the exclusion of Blacks from juries. It inspired songs, books, poetry and even a Broadway musical in 2010.
"We're real proud that it's over with," said state Rep. John Robinson, a Democrat from Scottsboro. "It was one of the grossest injustices that has ever been done in this country."
Activists and historians have long pressed the state to pardon the defendants and commemorate their case, said Rev. Robert Shanklin, a pastor who serves on the executive committee of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.
In April, Alabama lawmakers unanimously passed a measure to allow the state's Board of Pardons & Paroles to grant posthumous pardons to the Scottsboro defendants. A petition seeking the pardons was signed by all the circuit judges and district attorneys in the two counties where the defendants were convicted. The board found that five of the defendants were ineligible under the law because their convictions had been overturned and charges against them dropped in 1937. A sixth, Clarence Norris, was pardoned by Gov. George Wallace in 1976. The board unanimously voted to pardon the three remaining defendants.
"Clearly, it's just long, long, long overdue," said James A. Miller, an American studies professor at George Washington University (GWU) and author of a book about the Scottsboro cases. He lamented that the pardons came too late for the defendants, whose lives were ruined. But he said he hoped the board's actions would "generate deeper and widespread interest, not only in the case, but in the historic vagaries of American justice."
Those who pushed for the pardons said they hoped the actions would help the state close a searing chapter in its history. "We are a long way from where we were in the '30s in Alabama," said Glenn Thompson, a circuit judge in Morgan County, Ala., who was among those who petitioned the parole board for the pardons. "It's largely a symbolic gesture at this point, but it's better late than never."



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