Remembering Scottsboro: During the 1930s, Two Unknown Artists Created a Series of Linoleum Cuts Telling the Story of Slavery and Racism in the American South. Seldom Was Protest Art So Linked to Political Action as It Was in the Campaign to Free the "Scottsboro Boys."

By Kelley, Robin D. G. | Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Remembering Scottsboro: During the 1930s, Two Unknown Artists Created a Series of Linoleum Cuts Telling the Story of Slavery and Racism in the American South. Seldom Was Protest Art So Linked to Political Action as It Was in the Campaign to Free the "Scottsboro Boys."


Kelley, Robin D. G., Colorlines Magazine


It began on a slow-moving freight train near Paint Rock, Alabama. Nine young black men--Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Andy and Roy Wright, and Eugene Williams were pulled off the train and arrested on March 25, 1931, for allegedly raping two white women. The women in question, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, were also "riding the rails" or "hoboing," as they used to say in those days. Although the nine youths did not know one another, and most hadn't even laid eyes on these women, Bates and Price told the police that these black men "ravished" them. In one sense, Bates and Price felt they had little choice but to cry rape in order to keep themselves out of jail. Riding the rails was crime enough, but to be two single white "girls" traveling unescorted among "hobos" could mean an added vagrancy charge or arrest for prostitution.

Bates's and Price's troubles were nothing compared to those of the kids they accused. It did not matter that most of the defendants were unaware of the women's presence on the train. They were taken to nearby Scottsboro, Alabama, tried without adequate counsel, and hastily convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. All but 13-year-old Roy Wright were sentenced to death.

Stories like this one were not uncommon in the South during the late 19th century and throughout the first half of-the 20th. "Judge Lynch" usually presided over these affairs; a local white mob would take custody of the accused (with the complicity of local police) and save the state the costs of a trial by hanging the defendant from a sturdy tree branch or a street light or a bridge.

The nine young men convicted of raping Ruby Bates and Victoria Price knew this history as well as anyone. Perhaps they didn't know that over 5,000 people would ultimately be lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1946, but they knew their day,s were numbered. What made an ordinary Southern tragedy into an extraordinary world event was the intervention of an interracial group of radicals called the International Labor Defense (ILD). Founded by the Communist Party USA in 1925 to defend what they called "class war prisoners," the ILD set out to mobilize mass protest and to provide legal defense for working-class activists who they believed were being unjustly prosecuted for their political activity.

The Scottsboro case differed significantly from the ILD's previous cases. The defendants were not activists or trade union organizers; they were young black men from Tennessee desperately searching for work--hungry, anonymous, mostly illiterate. When Communist organizers in Chattanooga and Birmingham heard about the arrests, they visited the defendants in jail, gained their confidence and that of their parents, and initiated a legal and political campaign co win their freedom.

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Remembering Scottsboro: During the 1930s, Two Unknown Artists Created a Series of Linoleum Cuts Telling the Story of Slavery and Racism in the American South. Seldom Was Protest Art So Linked to Political Action as It Was in the Campaign to Free the "Scottsboro Boys."
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