Voices

Unclaimed baggage

Scottsboro institutions would like to forget a 70-year-old trial

Issue: "The 2002 vote," Nov. 2, 2002

SCOTTSBORO, ALA.-IS THERE A PLAQUE OR MEMORIAL here to commemorate the event that led to a major U.S. Supreme Court decision 70 years ago on Nov. 7? "I would not think so," Scottsboro librarian Marie Garrett laughed. "That's not the thing we would want to remember."

How does a town live down a reputation, I asked Dot Bean, the kind, white-haired person in charge at the Scottsboro-Jackson Heritage Center. "It's hard," she said. "When people think of Scottsboro that's all they know. We don't like to dwell on it."

That's an understatement. There's no indication at the Courthouse or the Scottsboro Public Library that the "Scottsboro Boys" case-nine black young men receiving death sentences from an all-white jury oozing with racism-ever happened. The manager of the Village Square Antique Mall was trying to sell a lampshade with a monkey base, but she gave a quick "uh-uh" and smiled when asked if any antiques related to the Scottsboro trial might be available.

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I decided not to try Scottsboro Trophy, Scottsboro Vision Center, or Scottsboro Towing & Recovery, but I did go back to the Scottsboro Public Library to see how many books on the Scottsboro trial were in the stacks. Answer: zero. The computer card catalog listed one with the note, "assumed lost." Dan T. Carter's fine book Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South was listed as available at the public libraries of Florence and Decatur, but not that of Scottsboro.

It's a shame that Scottsboro is known for the one thing town fathers want forgotten. One memorial in the center of town lists the names of 55 Jackson County residents killed fighting in World War I, 135 killed in World War II, 38 who went to Korea or Vietnam and never came back, and one-Jeremy Foshee-killed in action this year in the Philippines. Those sacrifices are worth remembering.

Scottsboro has a lot going for it, as a glossy, 106-page book sponsored by the Scottsboro/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce shows. A full-page ad on page three shows a girl and two boys-one white, one black-sitting on a curb and waving small American flags. Times have changed during the 71 years since nine blacks had a fight with some young white men on a train and ended up being found guilty of rapes they did not commit.

One problem back then was that there was both a miscarriage of justice and a miscarriage of the miscarriage. The Communist Party USA, hot to trot during Depression days, trumpeted the verdicts throughout the world as evidence of America's hopeless corruption. In so doing, the CPUSA hurt the cause of the defendants, who were propagandistically more valuable dead than alive.

The Communists were wrong on two counts. First, the Supreme Court showed the value of the "capitalist appeals process" when it ruled on Nov. 7, 1932, that the rights of the Boys had been denied when they did not receive competent legal counsel. Second, key Alabamans, including Judge James Edwin Horton Jr., sifted the evidence closely and concluded that injustice had been done.

The result was that, after many wrong turns and false starts, four of the defendants left prison in 1937 (much too long) and the others in 1943, 1944, 1946, and 1950 (much, much too long). In the second half of the 20th century, Scottsboro and the whole South changed. Most whites and blacks still do not sit down regularly at the table of brotherhood, but blacks whose grandparents were serfs now indisputably have the rights of citizens.

It's too bad that Scottsboro doesn't much recognize its civil-rights heritage, but I understand the strategy: City fathers probably want their town to be known not for its past of civil wrongs but for its becoming-famous Unclaimed Baggage Center. The big store sells items from all over the country lost on or by airlines and unclaimed. The day I visited, multiple copies of books in the "Left Behind" series were available. (Perhaps people reading them suddenly disappeared from their seats.)

The store also displays remarkable unclaimed objects such as bagpipes, and a violin made in 1770. Items left behind but not displayed include a shrunken head. But the biggest piece of unclaimed baggage is the Scottsboro trial, and ignoring it leads to shrunken history and ignorance about how far we've come.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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