20th And 21st Century US History

Evaluating the Communist Party of Americas Role in the Scottsboro Case



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The Scottsboro case of the 1930s was an important event for both the Communist Party of the USA and the Civil Rights movement as a whole and it was such an influential cultural event that it inspired the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The International Labor Defense, the legal Arm of the Communist Party used the trial as a symbolic gesture of Communism working for the working classes. The case showed the world the institutional racism and injustice that African-Americans suffered from every day in the Southern States of America. Jim Crow, Frame-ups and Lynchings were all issues that were highlighted during the Scottsboro case, demonstrating the clear bias of the legal system in the South. Eventually, thanks to the legal arm of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA), the so-called International Labor Defense (ILD), the Scottsboro boys were all eventually paroled, freed or pardoned.

In March 1931 a fracas developed on an Alabama freight train involving a gang of black men and a gang of white men catching a free ride in one of the freight cars. As a result of this fight, the group white men were forced to jump off the train. When the train came to its next stop the nine black men were arrested on charges of assault and two white women disguised as men who were found to be stowing-away and were also arrested. Later, when in custody, the two girls (who had been prostitutes in the area) told the police that they had been gang raped by the black men that they had been arrested with in Scottsboro.

When word first reached the locals of the supposed rape of the two women, a lynch mob assembled around the prison. The situation became so grave that the governor of Alabama was forced to call in the National Guard to defend the jail. The authorities attempted to quell the mob by ensuring swift trials executions for all of the accused. Indeed, less than two weeks after the initial arrests the first trial of the Scottsboro boys took place and Haywood Patterson was found guilty of raping the white girls. By April of 1930 the men, or as they had now become known in the media the Scottsboro Boys' had all been convicted of rape and received the death penalty, apart from one 13 year old, who was too young to be executed and instead received a commuted sentence of life imprisonment.

When the question arose of who would legally represent the boys, both the ILD and the NAACP made it clear that they wanted defend them and both organizations made a great effort to win the support of the boys and their families. Eventually, the International Labour Defence gained control of the Scottsboro boys' defence and the NAACP dropped out of the case at the beginning of 1932. The case quickly snowballed into something of a media circus when it was announced that the boys would be represented by the CPUSA's legal defence organization. The Scottsboro boys' death sentences, initially planned to be carried out with great haste, were delayed in anticipation of appeals which the ILD aimed to take all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to its high profile coverage in the international media, the plight of the Scottsboro boys reached a wide audience and as a result many public demonstrations were held in cities of the Northern states and overseas in Paris, South Africa and Moscow pledging their support of the defendants.

Despite the backlash that the prosecution was experiencing at an international level, with thousands of letters and petitions calling for an immediate release, the Alabama Supreme Court refused to overturn the convictions of the boys who had been sentenced to death. This verdict seemed to confirm the clear bias of the white capitalist system as pointed out by the Communist Party. However, the Party came under fire when it appeared that its involvement in the case was a win win' situation because a defeat could be used a propaganda tool to highlight capitalist oppression. Even the Scottsboro case, which gave the Party such a reputation for civil rights activism, eventually hurt the Party within the black community when it began to appear that the Party actually welcomed legal defeat to demonstrate the injustices of the capitalist system, and that the defendants' interests were being sacrificed for larger concerns; namely the interests of the Party and the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, by late 1932 when the case had reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the convictions were quashed and the boys were recommended for retrials due to the inadequate representation they had received in the original trial (a cheap real-estate lawyer who had told them to plead guilty). To defend the boys at their retrials The ILD hired the prominent New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz, who was regarded at the time as a hot-shot' lawyer who was extremely effective at winning his criminal cases. However, in hiring Leibowitz, what was initially seen as a deft move by the ILD was soon shown to be a mistake. Leibowitz was Romanian-born, Jewish, a northerner and he was seen by the Alabama locals as a communist and a black sympathiser. As a result, he soon became a figure of hatred and started receiving death-threats. This kind of behaviour was encouraged by Southern racist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 1930s the Southern Klan was boasting that 'Communism Will Not Be Tolerated' and equating it with both unionism and black activism. In Dallas in March 1931 armed Klansmen flogged two Communist organizers for speaking out against racial discrimination, and in Birmingham in 1932 it preyed on Communist supporters of the Scottsboro boys.

As the trials of the youths continued one of the girls, Ruby Bates, admitted that her and the other girl, Victoria Price were not friends and that she had not been raped by the boys. Eventually, Bates testified in court and retracted her original statement, admitting that she and the other girl had made up the rape allegations because they were homeless and feared that they might have been charged with the same offences that the other group of homeless men would have received. However, unbelievably the members of the jury found the boys guilty once more, believing the arguments of the prosecution saying that Ruby Bates had only changed her statement because she had been bribed by the Communists.

The men appealed their verdicts and the Scottsboro case was sent to the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court motioned to retrial due to Leibowitz's argument that the original trial had not been fair because they had been tried by an all white jury and that their constitutional rights had been violated because blacks had been excluded from jury service. At this point however, Leibowitz decided to step down as defence attorney as he had realised that the Southern courts viewed him as an outside intruder. He handed the defence over to a Southern lawyer and demoted himself to assistant attorney. Conversely, this also proved to be another bad move as the boys spent the following years in legal limbo being tried and retried. Although they were all eventually acquitted, paroled, freed or pardoned and their sentences overturned, the defendants suffered several more years in prison. It took a great deal of legal wrangling and appeal after appeal to finally clear the names of the Scottsboro boys.

The Scottsboro case saw the Communist Party of America at the peak of its successes. In the 1930s during the Great Depression, it had attempted to increase support for Communism throughout America using the Popular Front and by supporting the Civil Rights Campaign. At the beginning of the third period, a Bolshevik party official published the "Resolution of the Negro Question" which signified that the CPUSA supported the Civil Rights campaign. African-Americans at the time were the most persecuted race in America, and the CPUSA hoped that by supporting them they could lead a potential revolution. The CPUSA had shown support of the African-Americans in the southern black belt' and had campaigned for the equality of the workers; both black and white. During the 1930's the CPUSA was the only other major alternative that African-Americans had to support them in their campaign for Civil Rights. The other main option open to African-Americans was the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Both the CPUSA and the NAACP had attempted to wrest control of the defence in the Scottsboro case but the CPUSA eventually won the duel, hiring Samuel S. Leibowitz as the lawyer for the defence. However, the NAACP heavily criticized the CPUSA's involvement in the Scottsboro case, claiming that they only got involved in the trial for the publicity and propaganda purposes and that they only considered the Civil Rights issue as an afterthought. George S. Schuyler of the NAACP even went as far as to accuse the Communist Party of using the trial to make money. He reported that the black leaders of the Scottsboro drive had been trained at the Lenin School in Moscow, and were using the Scottsboro case as a cover to raise funds for the general welfare of the Communist Party. Schuyler learned from Samuel Leibowitz that the Communists had raised $250,000 for the case and had spent a mere $12,000 on the two appeals.

The NAACP was also criticized extensively by the CPUSA during the Scottsboro case. The NAACP was not seen as a popular option by African-Americans in the South as Blacks were a worst social position than Northern Blacks and through the publicity it gained from its involvement in the Scottsboro case, the CPUSA gained a great deal of support from Southern blacks. With blacks across the country passionately identifying with the Scottsboro defendants, the case opened doors into the black community that had always been closed to the Party. Communists were invited to speak at black churches, and were praised by formerly anticommunist black newspapers.

The battle between the NAACP and the CPUSA was a challenging duel that the CPUSA won because of their showing of support for working class African-Americans. Both the CPUSA and the NAACP saw the case as a chance to increase their publicity but the event took place during the Third Period' of Communism and the Great depression in America had increased the CPUSA's popularity. The NAACP and the CPUSA battled with each other in an attempt to represent the boys during 1931 and the two organisations ruthlessly attacked each others methods and policies. However, in the end The NAACP was as not as efficient and productive as the CPUSA. The CPUSA clearly and effectively used the Scottsboro case for their propaganda campaign, though its involvement was not wholly selfish. It led to putting African Americans on juries in the South. and increased public awareness about lynching, the poll tax, and civil rights from then on.

The CPUSA and NAACP spent a considerable amount of time attacking each other rather than promoting their own ideology. This was the essential problem for both the NAACP and the CPUSA. By continuing to fight each other, rather than allying for the common good of the African-Americans in the South, they had less impact on the Civil Rights campaign. This was a problem for all the Civil Rights campaigns throughout American history, from William Dubois and Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and a common problem with the NAACP during the sixties. Although both the NAACP and the CPUSA would have publicized their own beliefs, the readership would have been more increased in the petty backbiting between the parties.

To sum up, the fact remains that the young men involved in the Scottsboro case most likely would have been executed had it not been for the intervention of the ILD and ultimately the CPUSA. The CPUSA's involvement in the subsequent trials highlighted that a fair trial would not have been possible without them stepping in and that the Scottsboro case was a clear pointer to the widespread oppression experienced by the lower classes and, more specifically, the black population of the Southern states of America. The publicity that was generated by the case by the Communist Party put a great deal of pressure on the legal system of Alabama. The campaign to free the Scottsboro boys provided a precedent for African Americans in the Northern states to make a stand in future incidents of institutional racism in the Southern states.

The International Labour Defence's organisation of the young men's defence and stirred up enough international outrage to save their lives. Throughout the next two decades, the party, first through the ILD and then through its successor organization, the Civil Rights Congress, was to take up the cases of black victims of a biased legal system both in the South and in the North. The tactics used by the Communist Party of the USA in the Scottsboro case would later be employed vigorously by the Civil Rights movement and worked in the interests of African Americans in the decades to come.

More about this author: Peter Reilly

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