In this July 16, 1937 photo, Charlie Weems, left, and Clarence Norris, Scottsboro case defendants, read a newspaper in their Decatur, Ala. jail after Norris was found guilty for a third time by a jury which specified the death penalty. Weems was to be tried a week later. Nine black teenagers known as the Scottsboro Boys were convicted by all-white juries of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. All but the youngest were sentenced to death, even though one of the women recanted her story. All eventually got out of prison, but only one received a pardon before he died. (AP Photo)
From his earliest New York Age columns in the early 1930s to his very last in 1942, my father championed the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men accused of raping two white women despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The teenagers were arrested in 1931 and a series of trials spanned more than a decade. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed two sets of convictions but several of the defendants languished in jail for years. My father wrote frequently about the young mens’ plight. When he wrote his final column for the Age in 1942, five of the Scottsboro Boys were still in prison.
In his first Christmas column in 1933, my father wrote:
“Not so far away in unsympathetic cells in a Southern prison recline nine boys whose only offense to humanity is the color of their skin, in whose greatest mistake in life was to hobo on a freight train when two white prostitutes were also ‘passengers.’
At this point, we pause to wonder how much of the Christmas spirit has managed to evade therein. How much can they give glory to God in the Highest? Which God they may ask: The God who delivered Daniel from the lions’ den; The God who delivered the three Hebrew children from the fiery furnace; the God who delivered Jonah from the belly of a whale; the God who loosened the gods of Paul and Silas and opened the prison doors or the God who caused bears to devour little children because they mocked a baldheaded man?
If those boys have studied these parts of the scriptures, thinking of Victoria Price [one of the accusers] or Judge Callahan and the Alabama jurors they must conclude that the days of omnipotence are over, or some religious historian has appealed to our fantastic and superlative imagination.
Perhaps Judge Callahan, a visible disgrace to any hand that holds the scales of justice, will go to his church and tell his God that “his all is on the altar” and he will not share the fate, we read, that was meted out to Ananias and Sapphira.
While indulging in our Christmas delicacies and cocktails we might invoke a miracle for these boys’ deliverance.”
I’m not sure Ebenezer would consider the pardons of three Scottsboro Boys 80 years later a miracle. But that’s as good as it gets. In November, the Alabama board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to grant posthumous pardons to the three remaining defendants, Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright.
According to a Nov. 21, New York Times article, the decision “brought to an end to a case that yielded two landmark Supreme Court opinions — one about the inclusion of blacks on juries and another about the need for adequate legal representation at trial — but continued to hang over Alabama as an enduring mark of its tainted past.
I can’t imagine that he would be happy that it would take 80 years for justice to be delivered.”
I’ve often wondered what my father, a lover of musical theater, would think of the case being the subject of a Broadway play.
And I wonder whether posthumous pardons 80 years hence would restore or challenge his faith.
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