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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.".

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. They were later joined by groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU in a tenuous alliance that became the Scottsboro Defense Committee.

The Scottsboro case became one of the key episodes in the history of race and civil rights in America. Protests erupted throughout the country and as far away as Paris, Moscow, and South Africa. The ILD's involvement in the case, more than any other event, crystallized African American support for the Communists in the 1930s. And although the "Scottsboro Boys" themselves never identified with the party's goals, they became cultural symbols of the left--the subject of poems, songs, plays, and short stories that were published, circulated, and performed throughout the world.

One of those cultural products is this collection of linoleum cuts, by artists Tony Perez and Lin Shi Khan, about whom next to nothing is known. Created sometime in 1935, while the lengthy legal battle raged on, these words and images not only tell the dramatic story of the Scottsboro nine, but they give us a sense of the context that made such an international campaign possible.

Scottsboro needs to be understood in the context of an unspoken war at home that rocked the Depression era, a war for racial and class justice, a war against starvation and second-class citizenship. For a moment, nine poor young black men and their mothers from the Deep South became celebrities, as did Ruby Bates, who, in another remarkable turn of events, went on tour for the ILD speaking on behalf of the Scottsboro defendants. But that moment in the sun set almost as fast as it rose. By the time the final defendants were released, the case had pretty much drifted into obscurity.

Today we cannot afford to forget about Scottsboro. There are still many indignities within the criminal justice system and many lessons to learn about the role of mass protest in bringing about justice. These haunting linoleum cuts are more than a dramatic saga about the Scottsboro case. Khan and Perez have given us a sweeping context for understanding racial and class injustice. They begin their story not on an Alabama freight train, but on the slave ships from Africa, in the antebellum cotton fields and the postbellum chain gangs, in the factories and prisons, in the courthouses and the streets where the battle for rights is a battle for survival. They read the story of Scottsboro on the bodies of working people, in their determined and bulging eyes, their broken necks, their manacled wrists, their raised fists. They give us a history in indelible ink so we are able to discover it a half century later, return it to our collective memory, and never forget the lessons it holds.

Robin D.G. Kelley is professor of history at New York University.This article is adapted from Scottsboro Alabama: A Story in Linoleum Cuts.
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Title Annotation:culture
Author:Kelley, Robin D.G.
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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