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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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People & Events: Ruby Bates, 1915 - 1976

    Ruby Bates testifying on the stand during trial"I told it just like Victoria Price told it."
    -- testifying at Decatur, 1933

At the time she accused three black young men of raping her, Ruby Bates was seventeen years old. She lived, like Victoria Price, in a poor neighborhood of Huntsville and worked in the mills. Wages in 1931 were half what they had been just two years ago, and that was when work was available.

Although some Southerners believed racial segregation was present at all levels of society, that just wasn't true. In the poverty-stricken parts of Huntsville where Bates spent her time, blacks and whites played together, drank together, and even sometimes slept together. Bates, who was white, had once been arrested for hugging a black man in public; this incident indicates the difference between behavior that was present and that which was legislated against.

Bates was the quieter of the two accusers, and was always more vague about what had happened on the train. For the most part, she let Price do the talking and concurred with her version of events. At the first trial, in Scottsboro in 1931, she confirmed the story they had told the posse at Paint Rock, Alabama, on the day they came off the train and alleged that nine black teenagers had raped them.

In 1932, during an unrelated arrest, police found a letter that Bates had written to a boyfriend. In the letter, she denied having been raped. The man who had the letter on his person claimed that he had been paid by the International Labor Defense to get Bates drunk and have her write the letter.

Ruby Bates testifying on the standNot long afterward, Bates disappeared. She wasn't seen for weeks. Then, in a surprise twist to Haywood Patterson's second trial in Decatur before Judge James Horton in 1933, Bates appeared as a surprise witness for the defense. She testified that there was never any rape, and that the evidence of sexual activity from the examination of herself and Price was from the night before, when they had been with their boyfriends. Under cross-examination, she was confronted with the conflicts in her testimony at Scottsboro, and becoming flustered, proved to be a poor witness. Furthermore, she was asked about how she had paid for the new dress she had on, and where she had been. Her answer, that her new possessions were bought for her in New York, convinced many that her testimony had been bought as well.

According to Bates, she had gone to New York with a friend. Having a crisis of conscience, she sought out Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of Riverside Church, whose picture she had seen and found trustworthy. They met, and he convinced her to return to Alabama to testify.

After the Patterson trial, Bates discovered that she was the target of much of the hate and resentment that had previously been focused on defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz and the Communists of the I.L.D. She was taken out of town by armed deputies and sent back north, where many people celebrated her courage and honesty. Among them were Communists, who asked her to speak at rallies for the case, including a March on Washington in 1933 with the parents of the defendants. On that trip, she spoke to a crowd of five thousand in Baltimore: "I want to tell you that the Scottsboro boys were framed by the bosses of the south and two girls. I was one of the girls and I want you to know that I am sorry I said what I did at the first trial, but I was forced to say it. Those boys did not attack me and I want to tell you all right here now that I am sorry that I caused them all this trouble for two years, and now I am willing to join hands with black and white to get them free." Bates even wrote to the defendants in prison and appeared at rallies with them when four were released in 1937.

After testifying for the defense, Bates could no longer stay in her community. She moved to Washington State in 1940, married Elmer Schut and called herself Lucille. She resurfaced in the 1970s to file a slander suit against NBC for its broadcast of the television movie Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys. Her husband died in October of 1976, and Ruby died a week later, just two days after Clarence Norris received his pardon from the State of Alabama.

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