By Colin Woodward
For me, the two most interesting aspects of American history are race and war. Recently, I finished reading Dan Carter’s terrific book, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Somehow, I made it through graduate school without ever reading this book. The research is impressive, and it reads like a novel. The story recounts the trial of black youths in Alabama who were accused of rape in the 1930s. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, all-white juries repeatedly convicted the boys. And back then, the death penalty was the punishment for a black man who had raped a white woman. Ultimately, none of the boys were executed, but in the long process of winning their release (which, for one of the defendants, did not happen until the 1950s), some of the boys grew to adulthood in prison.
Carter skillfully narrates the events of the trials and retrials of the case. Alabama was dripping with racial tensions during the trial. But Carter also shows how divided were those who defended the Scottsboro nine. Initially, the NAACP campaigned to defend the boys, but the ILD (International Labor Defense) acted as counsel. Thus, compounding racial tensions were accusations that the boys were defended by communists. Their chief counsel, Samuel Liebowitz, was a Jewish lawyer from New York, and he endured quite a bit of scorn from the southern public and press. Liebowitz, however, was a brilliant lawyer, who did the best he could with racist white juries. Ironically, white racism actually helped one of the defendants. At one point, one of the Scottsboro boys is convicted but not given the death penalty. Why the “leniency”? One of the jurors believed a black man naturally couldn’t help himself from attacking a white person and so couldn’t be held morally culpable the way a white man would have been.
Scottsboro is the second book I’ve read by Carter, who I find to be one of the more underrated American historians. I quite enjoyed his book When the War Was Over, which shows the difficulty Republicans had in subduing the white backlash against Presidential Reconstruction. I look forward to reading Carter’s book on George Wallace.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War in 2014 through University of Virginia Press.