NY Times: Turning truth on its head — The Scottsboro case

Editor’s note: This week a bipartisan group of Alabama state lawmakers introduced a bill to exonerate the victims of a racist frame-up known as the Scottsboro case. This is a welcome development, although it comes more than 80 years too late.

 In 1931, nine young African American men, riding a train in search of work, were attacked by an armed mob and eventually arrested on trumped up rape charges of two white women, who were also on the train in search of jobs. Black and white unemployed and civil rights activists of the time immediately went to work to defend these young men and build a campaign for their freedom. Many of the leading activists and supporters of this historic campaign to free the “Scottsboro Boys” were members of the Communist Party. In fact, this case is so closely linked to the work of the Communist Party and its approach to multi-racial working class unity and struggle that numerous books and articles have been written about it.

 The New York Times, some 16 years ago, published an article that (surprise, surprise) grossly distorted the party’s role in the Scottsboro case. To mark both the introduction of this Alabama bill, and as part of Black History Month 2013, peoplesworld.org republishes two articles from our Feb. 15, 1997 edition that challenge a long-forgotten op-ed, and set the record straight on the role of Communists in the Scottsboro case, which- as this week has shown – will never be forgotten.

 From a first-hand account, key organizer Mary Licht wrote about her role and experience in spearheading the campaign for the Scottsboro Nine’s freedom. (Read Mary Licht’s first-hand description of the Scottsboro case here: “I remember the Scottsboro defense.”) Licht was in the PBS American Experience documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.” Licht was a lifelong member of the CPUSA and the chair of its history commission until her death.

 – Teresa Albano

When Mark Twain said there are “truths, half-truths and downright lies,” he must have been thinking about people like Denton L. Watson.

Last December Watson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he discussed the 1950s anti-communist witch hunt within the NAACP.

Denton justified the attack by deliberately distorting the role of the Communist Party in the defense of the Scottsboro Nine – a group of African American teenagers falsely charged with the rape of two white women and sentenced to death by Alabama authorities in the 1930s.

In his article Denton wrote: “In 1933 Communists greatly embarrassed the NAACP by taking over defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths who had been wrongfully convicted of raping two white prostitutes on a train in Alabama … The Scottsboro Boys’ case alerted it to the Communists real goal: to organize blacks as a fifth column in the international struggle to undermine capitalism and to get the west to disarm.”

In her article Mary Licht, speaking from first-hand involvement in the campaign that saved the lives the Scottsboro Nine, tells the story of how the Communist Party became involved, a story that is substantiated and elaborated upon by Harvard professor James Goodman in his book, “Stories of Scottsboro: The Rape Case that Shocked 1930s America and Revived the Struggle for Equality.” (Read Mary Licht’s first-hand description of the Scottsboro case here: “I remember the Scottsboro defense.”)

“The Communist Party had broken the story,” Goodman writes. “The communists organized meetings, rallies, marches, defense committees, petition drives and postcard and letter- writing campaigns. They spoke, passed the hat and recruited at churches, political clubs, booster clubs, fraternal organizations and labor unions … They took some of the mothers on a national and then on an international publicity tour.”

In his review of Goodman’s book for the April 3, 1994 issue of the New York Times Review of Books, David M. Oshansky, a history professor at Rutgers University, said: “One truth was apparent from the start. No group worked harder to free the ‘boys’ than the American Communist Party … [T]he Communists most certainly saved the young men by insisting on their innocence at a time when other groups, including the NAACP, were wary of defending any Black accused of raping a white woman. Indeed the youths and their families chose to be represented by the party’s International Labor Defense because, as one mother noted, ‘They are the only ones who put up a fight to save these boys and I am with them to the end.'”

Dr. Kwando M. Kinshasa, author of the recently published “Man from Scottsboro,” agrees. “They were looking for the best legal defense and at that time the ILD appeared to be the most aggressive in defense of the Nine.”

Kinshasa, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, added, “The question of being ‘used’ was secondary to their legal problems in the spring of 1931. It was only later that they became aware of the ongoing contention between the NAACP and the ILD about the political direction of their defense.”

In writing his book Kinshasa interviewed Clarence Norris, one of the oldest of the Nine and the last to be paroled after serving nearly 19 years. “He told me several times that he hadn’t appreciated the full impact of the ILD’s campaign,” Kinshasa said, “until he started getting letters from people in other countries.”

Photo: ILD-retained attorney Samuel Leibowitz meets with the Scottsboro defendants under guard by the state militia in 1932. (CC)


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.