• U.S.

RACES: Get It Done Quick

8 minute read

In April 1931, Herbert Hoover was just back from his first and last visit as President to the Virgin Islands (“a poorhouse” to him). Same month, eight young Negroes were sentenced to death at Scottsboro. Ala. for raping two white female hoboes in a Southern Ry. freight gondola (TIME, June 22, 1931).

In November 1932, the North was being treated to an orgy of self-righteousness by a semi-autobiographical film called / Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Same month, the U. S. Supreme Court set aside the Scottsboro verdicts on the ground that the defendants had not been provided with adequate counsel.

In April 1933, the U. S. S. Akron was lost off the New Jersey coast. Same month, this time in Decatur, Ala., bullet-headed Haywood Patterson, leader of the “Scottsboro Boys,” was found guilty of rape by a jury that fixed the death penalty. Scrupulous Judge James E. Horton set aside the verdict as unwarranted by the evidence, thereby signed his own political death warrant (TIME, April 17, 1933).

In December 1933, millions of citizens were sampling Repeal liquor for the first time. Same month, for the third time, at Decatur Negro Patterson heard himself condemned to death by a jury of twelve white men (TIME, Dec. n, 1933).

In April 1935, Congress appropriated four billion dollars for work relief, and the word “boondoggling” rushed headlong into the U. S. vocabulary. Same month, the U. S. Supreme Court again overruled the Alabama courts on the Scottsboro case, finding that since Negroes had been “systematically excluded” from the jury rolls, the defendants had been deprived of their rights under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Governor Bibb Graves firmly declared: ”Alabama is going to observe the supreme law of America!”

By last week, when the Scottsboro affair was ending its fifth year and beginning its fourth trial scene, the accused Negroes had long since ceased to be a handful of friendless vagrants. Instead they had become black symbols of economic bitterness, race prejudice, sectional hatred and political conflict. To the Communist Party of the U. S., which had rushed to the Negroes’ side with cash & counsel, the Scottsboro Boys were martyrs to Southern injustice and intolerance. To Southerners, the defendants were a gang of “bad niggers” whose crime was being brazenly exploited by malicious Reds, Jews and Yankees. Responsible Southern sentiment indicated, however, that a fair trial might finally be guaranteed if the defense would abandon its obvious air of partisanship. Apparently in response to this feeling, shortly before the trial the Reds involved in the defense had retreated rather clumsily behind a committee of intersectional liberals. To do the actual pleading, an Alabama lawyer had been hired. But Samuel Leibowitz of New York City. who had been through the second and third trials, remained as No. 1 counsel for the defense. Similarly, the State’s representatives in court were oldtimers too, the judge and prosecutor being the same who had caused Trial No. 3 to be characterized by the U. S. Supreme Court as a fine exhibition of Jim Crow justice.

Since he had helped convict Haywood Patterson in 1933 when he was State’s Attorney General, Thomas Edmund Knight Jr. had risen to be Lieutenant Governor of Alabama. The defense soon pointed out that the State constitution forbade a man’s holding two public jobs for pay. While Thomas Knight “laughed off” this objection, Judge William Callahan breezily overruled a plea that Knight be barred as special prosecutor at Trial No. 4 at Decatur.

In the ten months since he had last laid a fishy eye on Defendant Patterson and his Yankee counsel. Judge Callahan had not changed much. At the earlier trial he had had to be reminded at the last minute to instruct the jury what to do in case it happened to find Patterson innocent. In much the same spirit he now viewed the first Negroes who had shown up in the Morgan County courthouse since Reconstruction times in the role of possible trial Jurors. As Bibb Graves had promised. Alabama was “going to observe the supreme law of America.”

A Negro had actually been a member of the grand jury which swiftly reindicted Patterson. However, it was one thing to allow a Negro to participate briefly in such a routine ceremony, and quite another to permit one to serve in the body that actually decided Patterson’s fate. Every Negro in Alabama knew this. Therefore, the twelve black veniremen in Decatur last week were thoroughly uncomfortable. Judge Callahan was in no mood to put them at their ease. He had a few chairs placed outside the jury box for the Negroes to sit on. When one stage-struck blackamoor vacantly wandered into the jury box, his honor leaned over his bench, barked: “Here boy! Sit over there!” One of the Negroes lost no time explaining that his boss had recently shot himself while hunting, urgently needed him back home to run things. Two others guessed they were past the legal age limit of 65 for jurymen. One by one, the dusky dozen who would no more have dreamed of sitting on a jury with the “white captains” than they would of walking up and slapping the devil in the face, escaped from the courthouse by their own devices or were eliminated by the prosecution.

It took just seven hours for Prosecutor Knight to restate his case. It did not differ from the one his father, as a State Supreme Court Justice, had previously upheld in vain. Hard-faced Victoria Price who, it was charged, had slept with hoboes in a Chattanooga “jungle” the night before the alleged crime, told for the eighth time in public how Patterson and the other Negroes had chased off her white “boyfriends” and raped her in the freight car—a tale long since repudiated by Ruby Bates, the other alleged victim of the attack. When the State rested it was after 5 p. m. The courtroom was fetid. The defense had no witnesses on hand except Defendant Patterson, whom it did not want to call at that time. Nevertheless, Judge Callahan peremptorily ordered that the trial continue, that Patterson take the stand.

In the course of the trial he ruled out testimony relating to Victoria Price’s poor past, objected to defense procedure which the State had let pass as satisfactory, was vague about noting defense exceptions and, when the defense tried to illustrate physical details about the freight train, complained: “It won’t help anyone to see anything. It will just delay things.”

In summation, the State asked for the death penalty, otherwise “we might have to buckle six-shooters about our waists.” “Don’t go out and quibble over the evidence,” roared the young county prosecutor who was helping Prosecutor Knight. “Say to yourselves: ‘We’re tired of this job’ and put it behind you. Get it done quick and protect the fair womanhood of this great State.” The defense was for the protection of womanhood, too, but also asked for “the protection of the innocent.”

The jury got it done fairly quickly. Within eight hours it was back with the regular verdict of guilty but decided that Defendant Patterson be spared the electric chair, to spend the next 75 years in prison. “I’d rather die,” scowled Patterson.

Since a live man is better off than a dead one, and since Haywood Patterson will probably be safer behind bars for the next few years anyhow, the defense could count the verdict something of a triumph. In fairly good spirits Counsel Leibowitz was proceeding with the case of another Scottsboro boy when the prosecution suddenly challenged written medical testimony made at the second trial by a physician now too ill to go to court and substantiate it orally. Thereupon Judge Callahan indefinitely postponed all further trials, ordered the prisoners back to jail in Birmingham.

Going down Lacon Mountain 20 miles out of Decatur, the five cars carrying prisoners and officers came suddenly to a halt. Later there was no agreement as to how and why the affray started. But. in sum, Negro Ozie Powell leaned forward and sliced a deputy sheriff in the neck with a knife. The sheriff then shot off a portion of Ozie Powell’s forehead. The deputy was rushed off to a physician who closed the wound with twelve sutures. Ozie Powell, still conscious and still chained between two of his fellow prisoners, was driven 70 miles on to Birmingham where a surgeon extracted a slug sunk one inch in his brain.

Nearest thing to an official comment from the law’s side was the dark observation of the sheriff of Morgan County: “Somebody smarter than those Negroes . . . figured it all out.”

To this Counsel Leibowitz taunted: “Does the sheriff claim that three Negroes shackled together in the rear seat of a rapidly moving automobile . . . with two men in that automobile armed to the teeth, this car preceded in front by an automobile carrying two other armed officers of the law and followed by still another car with armed guards and with state highway patrolmen as an escort, did attempt to escape by using a pen-knife?”

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