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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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The Women on Trial

Ruby Bates testifying on the stand during trialVictoria Price and Ruby Bates were the two overall-clad women found on the Southern Railroad train that was stopped at Paint Rock, Alabama. The posse that stopped the train were surprised to find women aboard. (A few of the defendants expressed the same surprise.) Both women claimed to have been raped, and in the subsequent trials were treated in a fashion that was considered disrespectful to women in the 1930s and would be considered "politically incorrect" today.

Medical examinations less than two hours after the alleged rape found semen in both women. While this fact supported the accusation, under cross-examination Dr. R. R. Bridges testified that the women were calm and not physically injured, contrary to Price's claim that she had suffered injuries to her head and back. Furthermore, Bridges acknowledged that the sperm had been non-motile, inconsistent with the time of the rape since sperm usually live from twelve to 48 hours. In addition, the doctor had found it difficult to find enough semen from Price to make a slide, even though she claimed to have been raped by six teenage boys. A second doctor, Marvin Lynch, did not testify, but told Judge James Horton privately that he did not believe the women had been raped.

Defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz repeatedly tried to establish the low character of both women, particularly Price. She had been arrested for adultery and neighbors described her as a prostitute. When Ruby Bates appeared as a defense witness in one of the trials of 1933, she testified that the night before the train ride, she had had sexual intercourse with a boyfriend, Lester Carter, and witnessed her friend in the same act.

In his charge to the jury, Judge Horton described both women as poor witnesses who contradicted their own stories. Later, in his reversal of Patterson's conviction, Horton wrote that all women deserved protection under the law, but then went on to suggest that historically, women of low character were known to lie.

Many years later, a television movie of these events included one scene depicting the two women, partially undressed, having intercourse with their boyfriends side by side. This, and other scenes, led Price and Bates to sue NBC for their broadcast of "Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys" (1976). Bates, since recanting her earliest testimony and testifying for the communist-funded defense, had been ostracized from her community and her family. She eventually relocated, married and lived using the name Lucille Schut; she died before her suit came to trial. Price lived in Tennessee and had also changed her name; she was known as Katherine Queen Victory Street.

Dan Carter, the historian whose book was the basis for the movie, appeared as a witness for NBC's defense. Lawyers confronted him for the positions he took in his book and on the stand: "What right have you to even bring up the accusation that she was a prostitute? That has nothing to do with whether she was raped." Even in 1937, after Clarence Watts tried to point out Price's "unlawful acts, her transgressions, her wickedness" a judge responded, "In other words, you were trying to try Victoria Price and not the niggers [sic]."

The notion of trying the victim for the rape is offensive, but it should be remembered that this line of questioning was required to explain the presence of semen in the victim's vagina. At the time of the incident, in the early 1930s, two unattached women were not expected to betray evidence of sexual activity.

In fact, an argument could be made that societal control of women led ultimately to the Scottsboro incident. The Mann Act of 1910, progressively-conceived legislation designed to curb prostitution, made it illegal for women to cross state lines for carnal purposes. After the train was stopped, it may have been the threat of arrest that led the women to accuse the young black men of rape.

Hollace Ransdell, a female reporter hired by the ACLU to cover the Scottsboro case, wrote an enlightening report on attitudes toward women in Alabama at the time of the trial. Through interviews in Huntsville, she uncovered the complexity of Price's and Bates' situation during the Depression: "'These mill workers are as bad as the Niggers [sic],' said one social service worker with a mixture of contempt and understanding. 'They haven't any sense of morality at all. Why, just lots of these women are nothing but prostitutes. They just about have to be, I reckon, for nobody could live on the wages they make, and that's the only other way of making money open to them.'"

As sympathetic as we might be to the men who were incarcerated for a combined total of over a hundred years of their young lives, we might try to understand the circumstances that led the women to do what they did. Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, driven by the economic forces of the Depression and the constraints of a conservative society, made an accusation that shattered nine lives and quite possibly their own. Including her civil case against NBC (which was eventually dismissed by the judge), Price testified to her rape in court about a dozen times over more than four decades, before petit and grand juries. In seeking to convince others of her story, it is entirely possible that Victoria Price may have convinced herself she was the victim of a brutal and invasive assault.

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