Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Images of Scottsboro

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Images of Scottsboro

Article excerpt

In his poem "Scottsboro Too Is Worth Its Song," the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen complains that poets "have raised no cry" against the injustice suffered by the Scottsboro boys in contrast to their "sharp and pretty tunes" for Sacco and Vanzetti.(1) Granted, no artist memorialized the Scottsboro boys to the degree Ben Shahn did the two anarchists in his painting that repeatedly appears in art history texts to illustrate the American social realist movement; yet, contrary to Cullen's claim it is doubtful that any victims of alleged legal oppression touched as many socially conscious artists as did the nine African Americans accused, while riding a train as hobos, of raping two white women.

In March 1931 nine black youths boarded a train in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as did some young white men. When the train stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama, sheriff's deputies arrested the blacks for fighting with the whites, and when two young white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, also left the train, one accused the nine black youths of raping them, a charge the other did not deny. Transported to the Scottsboro jail and held there until their trial, the young blacks narrowly escaped lynching, and with little solid evidence for rape--let alone gang rape--a Scottsboro jury nonetheless convicted all nine of the poor ignorant youths of rape within twelve days. Each of the defendants, except one who was thirteen-years-old, received a death sentence. The case continued throughout the 1930s with numerous retrials and only ended decades later with Governor George Wallace's pardon of the last defendant in 1976.(2)

For much of the 1930s, artwork in various media became propaganda clamoring for release of the Scottsboro boys and against the widespread injustice of lynching. Socially engaged northern artists seized specific aspects of this widely publicized case and created imaginative renditions in plays, poetry, song, and graphics that used a variety of persuasive artistic strategies to project themes idealizing the defense and vilifying Alabama and the rest of the white U.S. South. Viewed together these works portray a cruel, fallen South, warped by bigotry, ruled by a powerful white male elite allied with capitalist interests, ready to crucify young black men who await a proletarian redemption.

Much in this artistic phenomenon can be attributed to activities of the Communist Party (CP), which made the Scottsboro case an international cause celebre. As two major histories of the case have explained at length, the Party, through its legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD) vied successfully with the NAACP to represent the boys in appealing the verdicts. The CP also launched an enormous publicity campaign, urging mass protest and pressure. This publicity probably supplied the major stimulus for artistic expression; such stimuli, however, had to reach sensitive, willing receptors. Some artists were Communist Party members, but in the early 1930s, the nadir of the Great Depression, many more sympathized with some part of the Communist agenda or its critique of an American society that seemed to have failed economically and politically under capitalism. News of Stalin's atrocities had not yet dampened Communist idealism and hope for a just, egalitarian society. Sympathetic artists agreed with the Communists that American society needed radical change and committed their work to increasing awareness of that need.

The spirit behind many artistic efforts on behalf of the Scottsboro defendants was predominantly humanitarian rather than political. Along with the misery caused by the Depression, leftists believed that the oppression of blacks, particularly in the southern states, constituted the most flagrant eyesore on the American social landscape. The Scottsboro case seemed to exemplify the most egregious form of racial discrimination prevailing in the South: a black male accused of raping a white woman was presumed guilty and risked lynching if only to serve as an example to other black males. …

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