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James A. Miller, Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial.

James A. Miller, Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009. pp. xii + 280. US $28.95 paper.

James A. Miller's book seeks to answer why, after nearly 80 years, the trial of nine African-American youths in Alabama continues to resonate throughout American culture. The author sees the Scottsboro case 'as the most celebrated racial spectacle of twentieth century American history', at least before the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Remembering Scottsboro is presented as a battle for memory and meaning, and the author offers a cultural and literary perspective of these historical events. The political meaning of the Scottsboro Boys' trial and its consequences are largely neglected in the literary landscape.

Miller constructs what he defines as a 'Scottsboro Narrative' to examine how the ordeal of these Southern black youths is 'imaginatively rendered' by American poets, novelists, dramatists and film makers. He explores the reaction of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and other black and white writers, many of whom were members or sympathisers of the American Communist Party (CPUSA). He notes how the fate of the Scottsboro nine was subsequently revised by the former Communist, Grace Lumpkin, to become a denunciation 'of the evils of Communism' during the Cold War. Harper Lee's 1960 novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is seen by Miller as the 'Final Stage' of the Scottsboro Narrative. Miller contends that the trial of the Scottsboro Boys was re-imagined in Harper Lee's book, where the story was simplified to the alleged rape of a poor young white woman by a black servant. Miller argues that To Kill A Mockingbird presented an anodyne version of the Scottsboro case, a fiction in which locals resolve this local issue free of outside interference from the Communist Party and the NAACP, and where the question of racial oppression was never considered.

Miller's reflection on the meaning and memory of Scottsboro in American culture is sometimes opaque and meandering, particularly in the 'Fictional Scottsboros' chapter. His portrayal of Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro accused, as a Proto-Revolutionary is not successful. Patterson's innocence and defiance are carefully drawn, but his long-term degradation in prison and early death never indicate the possibility of a revolutionary transformation.

Miller gives us a particular cultural legacy of the infamous trial, but is it the only legacy of Scottsboro? Without the intervention of the American Communist Party, the lives of the Scottsboro Boys would have ended in the electric chair. They were tied up and imprisoned after being falsely accused of rape by two poor white Southern girls. Only the arrival of the Alabama National Guard prevented their immediate hanging by race-hating white vigilantes. From the end of the Civil War, thousands of black men had been lynched throughout America on white women's allegations of rape. The Scottsboro defendants were tried 12 days after their arrest. One prosecutor told the all-white jury: 'Guilty or not guilty, let's get rid of these niggers.' One of their court-appointed lawyers was an alcoholic real estate attorney, while the other had not presented a case in court for decades. The legal wing of the American Communist Party, the International Labor Defense (ILD), came to the assistance of the black youths. They won an appeal on the basis that the court appointment of incompetent lawyers violated the defendants' right to due process. The ILD hired a New York criminal lawyer who proved that the rape charges were baseless. The NAACP initially refused to support the accused, believing the ILD's involvement would determine the jury's race verdict of guilty. The CPUSA campaigned nationally and internationally to free the Scottsboro Boys. After three mistrials over six years, the defendants were found guilty. The ILD, in unity with the NAACP, appealed the Scottsboro case to the US Supreme Court, which found that because 'qualified' African-Americans were excluded from Alabama juries, their clients were denied a fair trial. Throughout their imprisonment, the CPUSA organised marches, speaking tours and demonstrations. The Party's efforts won them significant support from black Americans. The last of the Scottsboro Boys to be released on parole in June 1950 was Andy Wright. In their final trial, the three youngest Boys were freed, while the older Boys were found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms. They, with the exception of Haywood Patterson, were released during the 1940s. Patterson escaped, was re-arrested and sent back to prison, where he died.

The legacy of Scottsboro was more than the infamous trial, as Miller contends. The Scottsboro Boys' ordeal was part of a continuing and greater legacy, that of chattel slavery. The racial exploitation of American slavery was transmuted into racial oppression after the Civil War. Jim Crow licensed racial boundaries, and sanctioned lynching and the show trials of the Scottsboro Boys. The scourge of racism still haunts America, even as the Scottsboro Boys fade from memory and meaning.


University of Western Sydney
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Author:Cottle, Drew
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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