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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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Lynching in Alabama

A newspaper clipping about lynchingAfter the first Scottsboro trial in 1931, many observers condemned Alabamans for the "legal lynchings" of the Scottsboro defendants. This was upsetting to Southerners, who were congratulating themselves that actual lynchings were decreasing in the first part of the twentieth century.

Since Reconstruction, the South had seen thousands of lynchings, acts of vigilante justice in which a mob punished an accused criminal, frequently an African American, without recourse to judicial due process. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were more than a hundred lynchings a year in the United States. By 1930, the number was less than two dozen.

On the first night the defendants were in custody in Scottsboro, in 1931, National Guardsmen were sent to protect them from the angry crowd of several hundred Alabamans who gathered at the jail. James Stockton Benson, editor of a local paper, wrote that "after having a little time to cool off, [the people] realize they have saved the good name of the county and the state by remaining calm and allowing the law to take its course." His point was that a few decades earlier, black teens accused of raping a white woman would not have made it to a courtroom. Many moderate Southerners were proud that a lynching had been avoided and the boys delivered to the authorities.

A woman lynchedThis led, unfortunately, to an expectation -- or a willful disregard -- that trials in such cases would be swift and would end in capital punishment. The fact that there were legal challenges to the Scottsboro case, prolonging what seemed to some an inevitable end, caused the pendulum of opinion to swing the other way. The Scottsboro incident was used to justify vigilante violence:

July 1931: In Tallapoosa County, Alabama, an assault by an individual African American man was interpreted as a sign of a black militia intent on freeing the Scottsboro defendants. For days afterwards, groups of armed white men terrorized black neighborhoods by searching and firing into suspected collaborators' houses. Several innocent African Americans died from bullet wounds.

June 1933: In Tuscaloosa, three black men were accused of raping and killing a white woman. I.L.D. attorneys arrived to defend the men, and had to be protected by National Guardsmen using tear gas and bayonets to get the lawyers out of town. Rather than allow another extended trial, deputies handed the three black men over to an impromptu firing squad.

Spectators at the lynching of an African American manSeptember 1933: Also in Tuscaloosa, a mentally retarded white woman accused an elderly black syphilitic cripple of raping her. Even after police had dismissed the claim, vigilantes shot the accused in his home.

In the minds of some white Alabamans, they had behaved with remarkable restraint and allowed the courts to administer justice in the Scottsboro case. There was no question for these people that the nine African American defendants were guilty as charged. But as the case dragged out over months and years, especially in the courtroom of Judge James Horton, anger erupted among those with a bent for vigilantism. After all, they felt their good behavior had been ignored, and their demands for justice unheeded.

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