Sketch by Jacob Burck from The Daily Worker.
The International Labor Defense's (ILD) involvement in the Scottsboro case, more than any other event, crystallized black support for the radical political movements, especially the Communist Party, in the 1930s. Accused of raping two white women (Ruby Bates and Victoria Price) on a 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, Eugene Williams), ages thirteen to twenty-one, were arrested on March 25, 1931, tried without adequate counsel, and hastily convicted on the basis of shallow evidence. All but Roy Wright were sentenced to death. Already in the midst of a mass anti-lynching campaign begun a year earlier, the ILD gained the confidence of the defendants and their parents, initiated a legal and political campaign for their freedom, and in the process waged a vicious battle for control over the case with the NAACP, who accused the Communists of using the young men for propaganda purposes.

The Scottsboro case was not simply an isolated instance of injustice, the Communists argued, but represented a common manifestation of national oppression and class rule in the South. Maintaining that a fair and impartial trial was impossible, the Party and its auxiliaries publicized the case widely in order to apply mass pressure on the Alabama justice system. Protests erupted throughout the country and as far away as Paris, Moscow, and South Africa, and the governor of Alabama was bombarded with telegrams, postcards and letters demanding the immediate release of the "Scottsboro Boys." Through Scottsboro and other related cases, black and white Communists gained entrance into churches lodges, and clubs in the African-American community, and eventually the ILD was regarded by some as a welcome addition to the panoply of "racial defense" organizations. Moreover, although the "Scottsboro Boys" the defendants were denied the right of counsel. For the new Scottsboro trials, whichopened on March 27, 1933, the ILD had retained renowned criminal lawyer Samuel Leibowitz. More significant, a month before the trial date Ruby Bates repudiated the rape charge. Yet, despite new evidence and a brilliant defense, the all-white jury still found the Scottsboro defendants guilty--a verdict that seemed to buttress the Communists' interpretation of justice under capitalism and augmented the ILD's popularity in the black community. In fact, pressure from black militants and some sympathetic clergy and middle-class spokesmen compelled the virulently anticommunist NAACP secretary, Walter White, to develop a working relationship with the ILD in the spring of 1933. Several months later, however, in an unprecedented decision, Alabama circuit Judge James E. Horton overturned the March 1933 verdict and ordered a new trial.

Following a number of incredibly foolish legal and ethical mistakes (including an attempt to bribe Victoria Price), star lawyer Samuel Leibowitz bolted the ILD, which began to lose its prestige in the mid-1930s. With support of conservative black leaders, white liberals, and clergymen, Leibowitz founded the American Scottsboro Committee (ASC) in 1934. However, hostilities between the two bodies were slightly mitigated a year later when the ILD turned to the coalition-building politics of the Popular Front. In a tenuous alliance the ILD, ASC, NAACP, and ACLU, formed the Scottsboro Defense Committee, which opted for a more reformist, legally oriented campaign in lieu of mass tactics. After failing to win the defendants' release in a 1936 trial, the SDC agreed to a strange plea bargain in 1937 whereby four defendants were released and the remaining five endured lengthy prison sentences--the last defendant was not freed until 1950.

Although the ILD did not win the defendants' unconditional release, its campaign to "Free the Scottsboro Boys" had tremendous legal and political implications during the early 1930s. For example, in one of the ILD's many appeals, a 1935 U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the defendant's constitutional rights were violated because blacks were systematically excluded from the jury rolls--a landmark opinion that spurred a battle to include African Americans on the jury rolls. Moreover, the realization that limited mass interracial action was possible challenged traditional liberalism and the politics of racial accommodation; the often scorned tactics of "mass pressure" would eventually be a precedent for civil rights activity two decades later.

--Robin D. G. Kelley


Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. 2d ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

Martin, Charles H. "The International Labor Defense and Black America." Labor History 26 (Spring 1985).

Murray, Hugh T., Jr. "The NMCP versus the Communist Party: The Scottsboro Rape Case, 1931-1932." Phylon 28 (1967).


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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:28 EDT