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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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People & Events: Olen Montgomery, 1914 - ?

    Olen Montgomery"That thing they had here on May Day what good did it do. Not any at all. I'm still locked up in the cell. Instead of the I.L.D. trying to make it better for me here in jail they are making it harder for me by trying to demand the people to do things. Listen, send me some money. Send me three dollars like I told you in my first letter."
    -- Letter to his mother after a May Day rally. May 3, 1934

Olen Montgomery was born in Monroe, Georgia. He made it through fifth grade and was the only defendant who could write at the time of the nine teenagers' arrest. Extremely myopic, and with a cataract in one eye, Montgomery could not see well at all. He was en route to Memphis, looking for work to buy some new eyeglasses, when he was taken from the train and arrested in 1931, at the age of 17. The pair of glasses he had was broken on the day of the arrest and he went for two years without a new pair.

He didn't know any of the other young men and boys with whom he was sentenced to death. However, being the most literate of the group, he wrote letters for the others. In a letter to their International Labor Defense lawyer George Chamlee, Montgomery wrote: "i Was on My Way to Memphis on a oil tank By My Self a lone and i was Not Worred With any one untell I Got to Paint Rock Alabama and they Just Made a Frame up on uS Boys Just Cause they Cud."

After the first trial, Montgomery was jailed for six years without a retrial. During that time, he wrote songs. In 1936 he wrote to Anna Damon of the I.L.D.: "You can get some small six string guitars and sent it rite away please I need it. if I live I am going to Be the Blues King. I want to surprise every Body some day Anna please don't wait a minute sent it rite on to me so I can Be practicing on these too songs that I have made up." His "Lonesome Jailhouse Blues" was published in the Labor Defender and began: "All last night I walked my cell and cried, Cause this old jailhouse done get so lonesome I can't be satisfied."

In a compromise in 1937, four of the defendants, including Montgomery, had the rape charges dropped against them. Defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz immediately picked them up from their jail, drove them out of the state, and put them on a train to New York.

In New York, Leibowitz had planned to place the boys in vocational schools, but offers from vaudeville proved too tempting. Thomas S. Harten, a minister, offered to manage the four released young men and presented them at Harlem's famous Apollo Theater. Harten's management style did not translate into good wages for the four, though. Leaving their manager, Montgomery and Roy Wright agreed to a national tour sponsored by the Scottsboro Defense Committee to raise money for their five incarcerated friends.

By 1938 Montgomery had bought himself a guitar and a saxophone and was taking music lessons. He continued to appear at meetings for the S.D.C. (which was paying his way until he could support himself with his music). Eventually the S.D.C. funds ran out and, after a brief stay in Georgia, Montgomery settled in Detroit, Michigan. There, after a night of drinking, he passed out on the bed of a girlfriend. Her landlady discovered them and accused him of rape, a charge that was dropped two days later.

After that, Montgomery spent his days in New York or Atlanta, usually drinking and occasionally receiving financial help from the NAACP.

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