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Scottsboro American Tragedy

March 29, 2001


Scottsboro 70 Years Later, Still Notorious, Still Painful


On March 25, 1931, nine black teenagers were traveling on a freight train headed for Memphis, hoping to find work. Eugene Williams and Roy Wright were 13. Roy, who had never been away from home, was accompanied by his brother Andy, 19. Olen Montgomery, 18, almost blind, hoped to buy glasses with the wages he would find. The oldest, Charlie Weems, was 19. The boys were dirt poor and mostly illiterate.

North of Scottsboro, Ala., a white boy stepped on the hand of one of the youths, Haywood Patterson, 18. A fight broke out, and the blacks got the better of the whites. Word spread, and at Paint Rock an armed posse was waiting. In the chaos, Ruby Bates, 17, and Victoria Price, 21, both white, emerged from the train and said that the blacks had raped them. The youths were driven to Scottsboro, the county seat, where a crowd demanded that they be lynched.

This was the beginning of one of America's most notorious racial dramas, that of "the Scottsboro Boys," who spent many years in prison facing the death penalty in what came to be seen as a blatant case of injustice.

In "Scottsboro, An American Tragedy," an 84-minute-long documentary that will be broadcast Monday night on PBS, two filmmakers, Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman, re-examine the case, dusting off mostly forgotten court testimony and interviewing participants' descendants and witnesses to a story of jurisprudence in which the defendants endured 16 trials, either together or apart, and prison terms of six to nearly 17 years.

The documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award, includes largely unseen film clips of the boys' mothers, impoverished country women who traveled the world on behalf of their sons. The actors Stanley Tucci, Harris Yulin, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances McDormand and Daver Morrison read from court testimony, press accounts and the memoir of Patterson, who died in 1989. The film is narrated by Andr´ Braugher.

The 37-year-old producers, both from New York City, said they were inspired by the 1994 publication of James Goodman's complex history of the event, "Stories of Scottsboro" (Pantheon). It "was a revelation," said Barak Goodman, who is not related to the author, "a deeply nuanced book that looked at it from different points of view Rashomon-style."

Mr. Anker said that he and Mr. Goodman depicted the ravages of the Depression on the South and "bent over backwards to portray what the Southern point of view is, and the desperation people were feeling at that time." They also consulted Dan T. Carter, author of "Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South" (Louisiana State University Press, 1969).

Mr. Anker and Mr. Goodman said they knew that in making the film they would be reopening old wounds. In many ways, their journey to Scottsboro was a replaying of the events of 70 years ago, when outsiders -- mostly Northern journalists, lawyers and members of the American Communist Party (which eventually paid for the defense and publicized the case) -- flocked to the town, thrusting it under scrutiny.

"They still think their name is scarred forever by this," Mr. Anker said. "Every person has to live that down whenever they travel outside the state."

In the film, Frank Grigg, 82, who as a boy saw the youths being brought from the jail to the courthouse, says to the filmmakers: "I've had people that knew you and I were going to have this conversation and some of them said, ĀNo, don't do it. Don't stir it up again.' I said, ĀWell, it's a part of us.' "

Mr. Goodman said that townspeople "wanted to correct the record."

"There was this Southern hospitality," he said. But "they were wary, and weary."

Judi Weaver, director of the Scottsboro Jackson Heritage Center, said in a telephone interview that "people would prefer that it would be put behind us."

"We just try and portray it as best we can and as accurately as we can," she said. "We tried to be helpful because we thought they would keep it in perspective."

The boys were arrested on charges of rape and put on trial. Their mothers scraped together $60 to pay for a lawyer, a local real estate attorney. The next month, they were convicted by an all-white jury and, with one exception, sentenced to death. The United States Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 1932 in a landmark decision, concluding that the boys had had inadequate counsel.

During the trials, the Communist Party struggled with the N.A.A.C.P. over the defense. The party saw in the case a way to illuminate the evils of racism and enlisted the aid of Samuel Leibowitz, a prominent Jewish lawyer from New York. Many party members were Jews, as are Mr. Goodman and Mr. Anker.

"There was the feeling we were Northern Jews, Leibowitz all over again," Mr. Goodman said.

He said that one person being interviewed asked him, "ĀAre you Jews or Communists?"

"I'm the Jew, and he's the Communist," Mr. Goodman said he jokingly replied, pointing to Mr. Anker.

There was no evidence of any rape on the train. One of the boys, Willie Roberson, 15, was suffering from syphilis so severe that he could not have had sexual intercourse. But there were white people in Scottsboro who still believed that at least some boys had committed a crime.

"Some of them were guilty," Mr. Grigg said in a recent telephone interview. "Each colored boy didn't have intercourse with each girl. But they had been used."

Still, others saw the defendants as frightened children. The filmmakers interviewed Athelyne Banks, 93, a retired black schoolteacher who attended one of the trials.

"They were young, very young," Ms. Banks said in a telephone interview. "And some of them really needed to be home with their mothers. They were not what you call rowdy. They were just mischievous and wanted to take a ride, but that was the wrong ride to take."

The film goes into the backgrounds of the accusers, Price and Bates, impoverished millworkers who traded sex for money with black and white men. Price had served time in a workhouse for vagrancy and adultery. In the film, Frances McDormand reads Price's testimony: "There were six to me and three to her. One was holding my legs and the other had a knife to my throat while another ravished me." Some said the girls made the accusation of rape out of fear of being arrested themselves on vagrancy or other charges.

At Patterson's second trial, Ruby Bates recanted and began campaigning on behalf of the boys, who were again found guilty in a decision that again led to a landmark Supreme Court decision in April 1935, throwing out the verdict because the jury was all white. Other trials and convictions were soon in the offing.

Meanwhile, the youths languished in prison, sometimes starved and beaten. At one point, some of the boys were on death row. In the film, Sybil Washington, who co-wrote the autobiography of one of the Scottsboro Boys, Clarence Norris, described him hearing the cries of the condemned, the sound of the switch being thrown on the electric chair during executions. "Every time it was him going in there," Ms. Washington says. "It was him dying, over and over and over and over again."

Yet heroes emerged locally. The patrician Judge James Horton of Athens, Ala., overturned Patterson's guilty verdict and later lost his bid for re-election.

The boys learned to read and write in prison. Charlie Weems was often hungry and began losing weight. Roberson suffered from asthma. "This steel and concrete just kills me," he wrote. "No outlet, no exercise, no window in front of cell; some nights I just can't get my breath."

"I just rather they give me the electric chair and be dead out of my misery," he wrote, "because I sure don't want no time for something I haven't did."

The film describes how one defendant, Ozie Powell, while being taken by car from courthouse to jail, tried to slash a sheriff's deputy's throat and was shot in the head. Powell survived but with brain damage. Powell said the deputy threatened to kill him.

Patterson escaped from Kilby prison near Montgomery, Ala. The others were paroled at different times. "The tragedy of Scottsboro is that the boys never regained their footing, they never recovered from what they lived through," Mr. Anker said. "They spent their formative years and their early adulthood in jail, and they never recovered."

The film summarizes the boys' lives after prison. Most were wounded forever. In 1959, Roy Wright, the youngest, killed his wife, then committed suicide. His brother, Andy, was accused of raping another woman but was acquitted. The brothers are buried side by side in a neglected cemetery in Chattanooga, Tenn. Patterson died in prison after being convicted of killing a man in a fight.

Norris went on to lead a stable life. He became a sanitation worker in New York City, married twice, raised a family. In 1976, Gov. George Wallace, who later moved away from his staunch opposition to integration, pardoned him.

"I have no hate towards any creed or color," Mr. Norris said at a press conference after his pardon, which is shown in the film. "I like all people, and I think all people accused of things which they didn't commit should be free. I wish these other boys were around." He died in 1989.

Today Scottsboro is a pretty place of about 15,000 people, nestled in the hills of northeast Alabama along the Tennessee River. It is the home of the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which sells unclaimed baggage from airlines. The town still celebrates First Monday, a monthly gathering in the courthouse square, a flea market and swap that has existed for more than 100 years. Schools are now integrated, although blacks and whites still live mostly in separate neighborhoods.

Ms. Weaver, for one, attributes the trouble to outsiders who came from the mountains of Jackson County "and gave Scottsboro, Alabama, a black eye." Still, she said, "It's not something we can run away from; it is history."

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