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Carleton Beals in The Nation (1936)

The Scottsboro Puppet Show
By Carleton Beals

Decatur, A1abama, January 27

The Scottsboro trial is a puppet show. The principals are jerked through their ordained parts with such fidelity to class and racial and regional traditions, their motives and emotions so faithfully obeying established pattern, that it is difficult, even on the scene, face to face with reality, to realize that these are human beings, or that nine Negro boys, after five years of incarceration, are still fighting for their lives. The vulgar tragicomedy of the plot being enacted here in the little cotton and mill town of Decatur in the northern red-hill district of Alabama, the pettiness of the judge, the trickery and the demagogic ambitions of the prosecution, and the hatred of the poor-white-trash spectators, relieved only by the gleam of starved lust when they listen to salacious testimony or their amens of approval when the judge squashes the argument of the defense, make it difficult to appreciate that here is being decided a case which may well mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the South and of the nation.

It would be easy, too, to forget these things for the quaintness of the scene and the types. An unshaved jury commissioner in a frayed collar and greasy suit that hangs in folds tells you at length in an almost unintelligible dialect how he has been reducing. A ruddy deputy sheriff with a big paunch and gold lodge pin tells you of the cars he saw piled up in the blizzard while he was bringing the nine Negro prisoners from Birmingham to the courtroom. "The damn’ niggers," he tells you with comfortable joviality, "ain't wo'th all this heah trouble." A court clerk spends all his recess periods examining the chaw twists of tobacco of the courtroom folk--scarcely a man is unable to produce one, and the court proceedings are punctuated constantly by the spurt of tobacco juice on the floor and wall. The whole courthouse from basement to attic, despite the most amazing collection of spittoons I have ever seen under one roof, is stained with brown juice.

An old man with a mop of uncut and never-combed white hair banging about a gossipy, womanish face hops in on a home-made crutch, with one shriveled foot wrapped in dirty cloths sticking out sideways. He leans over the rail and wisecracks at the defense attorneys, then hops from person to person in the courtroom urging vengeance.

Prosecutor Thomas E. Knight, Jr., who has played sharp politics with this case and has ridden on the backs of these Negro boys into the lieutenant governorship and expects soon to ride into the governorship, peers from unexpected places in the courtroom with glazed blue eyes. His smile of victory and smug contempt draws back frog-like across his narrow face like a stretched rubber band. During a recess he foregathers with some of the correspondents. With two armed deputies on either side, the Negro defendant Haywood Patterson sits over against the wall.

Knight has been very successful with this case. He knows the temper of local juries and how to appeal to them. He never misses an opportunity to show contempt for that foreign country "New Yawk" and by implication to cast contempt on the defense attorney, Samuel S. Leibowitz, who after Clarence Darrow is probably the most brilliant criminal lawyer in the country. Furthermore Knight's own father sits on the Supreme Court bench of the State of Alabama and helps write the confirmations of the verdicts tendered by the local farmer juries. But during this last trial Knight has been rather subdued. The defense opened with a plea that he retire from the case because the Alabama constitution prohibits a public official from holding two public posts, and because if Ku Klux Klan Governor Bibb Graves should die or leave the state, Knight, as acting governor, would have to pass on any plea for clemency from the boys he helped to condemn. Throughout the trial the defense ironically referred to him only as "Governor."

A jury venireman approached me in the corridor during recess to tell me he did not believe anything he read in the newspapers. A lean, red-headed fellow with steel "specs," he moved his quid of tobacco to one side of his mouth to tell me of the origin of the "nigger" race--he had just solemnly sworn to the court he had no racial prejudices. Cain, it seemed, after killing Abel, went off to the land of Nod where he "knew a woman." "Now mos' folk don't go on and think things out. The Bible never says sexual intercourse, it jus' says a man knows a woman. But the Bible tells that there couldn't be no human folk at that time in the land of Nod. Now jus' put two and two together. Cain had offspring in the land of Nod, so he had him a female baboon or chimpanzee or somethin' like that. An' that's how the nigger race started."

After the geniality of the first day the courtroom setting became grim and harsh as it filled up with a rougher, though orderly crowd. Judge William Washington Callahan drove through the proceedings with relentless speed, making no concessions for delay of witnesses or anything else. Judge Callahan is a man over seventy whose son was recently acquitted of murder through a temporary-insanity plea. The Judge has a lashing tongue and indulges in salty dialect witticisms that usually fall viciously at the wrong moment. With his wispy white hair, his choleric rumblings, his easy mouthing of legal and constitutional formulas, he is, as one writer said, a Hollywood version of a Southern judge.

A climax in the trial was reached on the second day, after seven wearying hours in the foul-aired courtroom, when the two defense attorneys called for a mistrial, accusing the judge of impatience, irascibility, continued ridiculing of the physical and other evidence of the defense, and repeated remarks made to prejudice the jury. Judge Callahan declared that if he had made any improper remarks he was willing to apologize, and in a tone of cold fury denied the motion. He then charged the jury not to heed the remarks of the defense, nor were the jurors to be prejudiced against the defense because of their motion. Subsequently the defense made five other mistrial motions which were denied.

At the outset judge Callahan ruled out as evidence the defense model of the fatal freight train that ran between Stevenson and Paint Rock five years ago with its human cargo of young derelicts and two mill trollops, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. "That train is a useless waste of time," snapped the judge. "It would take half a day longer and is no help to anybody." Actually, without the model train no proper reconstruction of the details is possible. When the defense insisted, the judge roared out, "I cain't waste time this way. How will you get it set up as it was?"

The model was identical with that admitted by Judge Callahan at the previous trial, but he now demanded that the defense produce evidence. As the defense was not expecting to be asked for witnesses until late afternoon, the train conductor was not available, and most of the witnesses were required to go through long-winded unintelligible explanations which could have been settled at once by the model. In a previous trial Judge Callahan sarcastically remarked about the train, "Go ahead and set it up before Santa Claus gets it."

Late in the afternoon, after two-thirds of the evidence was in, the defense was able to call Conductor R. S. Turner to identify the model train again. Callahan again objected, "All I see it does, it takes up a lot of time"; and throughout the trial he seemed to take the attitude that the loss of five minutes was more important than the lives of the nine Negro boys. As the conductor started to testify, the judge bellowed at him to ask him the total number of box cars on the train, and before the conductor could make his calculations rushed to another question in such a way as to imply lack of credibility in the witness. Frequently throughout the trial, whenever any witness seemed likely to make a statement that threw light on the facts, the judge would roar over the bench at him, interrupting and confusing the evidence.

As in all previous trials the star witness of the state, since Ruby Bates recanted her testimony, was Victoria Price. She entered the courtroom well dressed in blue wool and brown velvet coat, and was not, as before, chewing snuff. In an earlier trial she had testified that one of the Negro boys had held her mouth so she couldn't take a spit. On this occasion she altered her testimony in a few key matters, declaring, for instance, that the gravel car was filled up only to two and a half feet from the top as compared to a foot and a half in her previous statements. But when the defense attempted to bring out the contradictions of Victoria Price's testimony with her statements in previous trials the judge promptly sustained the objections made by the prosecution. The court ruled out all evidence bearing upon the past conduct of Victoria Price--her jail convictions, her various marriages, her actual relations with Jack Tiller, a married man, her profligacy with two different men on the two nights preceding the supposed rape. But in his charge to the jury Judge Callahan declared that the credibility of Victoria Price was not in question, because the defense had not produced evidence showing bad character or untruthfulness.

She sat with her back half turned to the defense except during cross-examination. She spit out her words venomously at the defense with a hard crease in her thin mouth, and this time in her evidence increased the number of scratches on her body, but denied the disfigurations on her face to which she had previously testified and which had been denied by half a dozen witnesses. In this trial she put the supposed blow on her scalp instead of on her forehead over one eye. When no signal for a given reply was forthcoming from the prosecution, toward which she constantly glanced, she would answer sullenly, "I cain't remember." Several times during interruptions she sat smiling at Prosecutor Knight from behind a blue handkerchief.

The local prosecuting attorney and Sunday School teacher, Malvin Hutson, opened the jury pleading. Spitting his cud of tobacco into a spittoon and dropping his legs over the table, he combed his hair, smoothed his tiny black bow tie, and talked for a few seconds to the jury in an intimate low tone. His plump boyish face gradually flushed, and suddenly he sobbed out in a tone that shook the windows, "Save the pure womanhood of Alabama!" From then one he alternately roared and sobbed about the courtroom in a voice that would have filled the Metropolitan Opera House, giving a cross between a sermon and a stump speech and devoting only a few brief moments to actual summing up of the evidence. "Women, red, white, black, or green, depend upon this jury for protection," he insisted. He pictured the long fight of the pitiful Victoria Price for vindication, without which the jurors would have to "hang their heads." Whether "in overalls or in furs" a woman was protected by the law of Alabama against the vilest crime of the human species, that of rape, a crime which put any man lower "than the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, or the beasts of the fields." Even dogs choose their mates. The law reached "from the mountain tops to the swamps and caves" to protect "the sacred secret parts of the female," and now almost in tears, he assured the jurors that "Victoria Price is a human of the female species." Unless the jury upheld the law, women "might have to buckle six-shooters about their middles." The penalty for rape in Alabama is death, a penalty prescribed in accordance "with the wisdom of the ages."

One prospective juror remarked that Hutson was a "very good" Sunday School teacher. He is such a good Sunday School teacher that Haywood Patterson is to spend seventy-five years in prison.

The knife and gun fracas between a deputy sheriff and Ozie Powell, one of the Scottsboro defendants, which took place on the top of Lacon Mountain on the road from Decatur to Birmingham, helps to obscure the complicated case. The original trial in Scottsboro, with a hurried conviction without proper defense and with a mill band playing "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" under the courthouse windows, was a form of legal violence that barely stopped short of a major tragedy. The fact is that since then, during the five years of the case, seven of the defendants have never even been brought to trial. It would be strange indeed if stronger minds than those of these black derelicts were not preyed upon by fear, despair, and hate; and for five years the boys, who have grown into young manhood, have known only the companionship of criminals and riff-raff. Ozie Powell, who by his desperate act further endangered himself and his companions, has been brooding about these things. Jail madness seems the most likely explanation. Unfortunately more than ever the case is restored to the basis of passion, and the racial, social, and legal principles arc further obscured. The boys will lose sympathy, here and elsewhere, but, just as much as ever, justice as well as the boys will remain on trial.

From The Nation Vol. 142, No. 3683. February 5, 1936.

Scottsboro Interview, by Carleton Beals. From The Nation, February 12, 1936.

In the Negro ward on the fourth floor of the Hillman Hospital on Sunday afternoon I saw Ozie Powell, the Scottsboro boy who was shot in the head by Deputy Sheriff J. Street Sandlin in the mysterious scuffle on the road between Decatur and Birmingham. Ozie lies in the first room after one steps from the white ward into the illkept black quarters. At his doorway are stationed highway patrolmen, sheriffs, and gum-shoe men, who survey all comers with suspicious eyes. Ozie was lying on his left side asleep, a white bandage on his head, his right foot chained to the bed.

I was speaking to the nurse when a lanky sheriff poked me in the chest with a hard finger and snapped, "Who are you?"

I explained, and almost at once he became loquacious. "I'd give a fifty-dollar bill," he repeated several times, "if you could talk to that nigger. But it's against the Governor's orders. I'd like you to see for yourself that that New Yawk lawyer Leibowitz is a damn' liar. Why, we had a man planted outside Ozie's window when he and Watts wuz talkin' to the nigger, and we everything that was said."

"What do you think of these niggers?" asked a fat gum-shoe man. "They're guilty, ain't they? You'd shoot a nigger that knifed your buddy, wouldn't you?"

I managed to convince him that I thought as any good Alabamian does, and the sheriff grew mellow with the idea that at last he had found a friendly New York newspaperman. "Stand right here in the doorway," he said, "and have a look at him."

Before I could protest, he strode over to the bed, woke up the boy who had gone through a serious brain operation less than forty-eight hours before and whose life was still in the balance, and began firing questions at him. There was fear in the spasmodic twitching of the Negro's body and his rolling dazed eyes; he answered respectfully in a weak voice. Even so, he refused to incriminate Roy Wright, one of the other two manacled Negro boys in the car where the trouble started. When the sheriff insisted on an answer, saying, "That Leroy Wright's a bad fellow, isn't he? He put you up to this, didn't he?" Ozie groaned out, "Naw, didn't have to put me up to it."

Similarly, Ozie refused to answer the question, repeated again and again, "Leibowitz was mad at you, wasn't he?" This in a triumphant tone.

"Naw, he wasn't mad," the Negro boy managed to groan.

"But he was different toward you, wasn't he?"

"Naw, I guess--" And Ozie's voice drifted into intelligibility.

"He didn't talk to you very long, did he?" persisted the sheriff.

"Guess--he didn't have much time."

"He was in a hurry, wasn't he?"

Merely a negative sort of groan answered this question. The Negro boy was perfectly lucid, but he seemed to grow weaker from the prolonged questioning, of which only a sample is given here.

The sheriff, with several others who had crowded into the Negro's room, came back to me with a gloating expression. "Now you can tell the truth about this, cain't you? You seen for yourself that Leibowitz was lying when he said this nigger wasn't in a fit condition to be questioned. You seen that he knows everything he's saying."

This scuffle on the road (following prolonged efforts by the sheriffs, and what appears to be collusion between the prosecution and the court, to force the boys to throw over their lawyers and accept a court-appointed lawyer on with promise that they would get off with lighter sentences) is merely an incident that further obscures the guilt or innocence of the defendants and further conceals the grave social and racial implications of the whole case.

These nine Negroes, ranging from thirteen to nineteen at the time of their arrest, have varied intelligence and character. Some were illiterate, although all of them can now read and write. All the young folk, black and white, taken off that fatal train at Paint Rock, Alabama, five years ago, were driftwood. One of the seventeen-year-old Negro boys had both syphilis and gonorrhea and was barely able to get about with a cane. Haywood Patterson, who received a sentence of seventy-five years in his fourth trial, was apparently chosen by the prosecution to be tried first because he has the blackest skin, the wickedest gleam in his eyes, and the meanest expression on his face. He is what is known in the South as "a bad nigger." This means that he is wilful, self-assertive, independent, not properly servile. Add five years of jail, and it would not be surprising if he had become hard and perhaps treacherous. Yet he is decidedly likable and, in contrast to Victoria Price, he has a straightforward honesty in his manner; he is more gentle and restrained than his accuser, who viciously spits out her words, some of them foul. He was generous enough to save Orville Gilley from death under the wheels by hauling him back by his feet into the "chert," or gravel car, although the white boy had trampled on his hands and almost caused him to fall off the moving train and had been heaving "stud," or rocks, at him. Haywood writes good English in a beautiful hand.

Ozie Powell, who was shot in the brain, was sullen and shifty on the stand and sometimes flared up with anger. Five years in a jail cell, with no proper exercise, no sunlight, and no amusements, have given him an acute prison psychosis. One of his fellow-prisoners says he has been "queer" for nearly a year. "He jus' sits off all by himself and plays that little harp of his and after a while throws a fit. He jumps up and curses everybody and everything. Theah's something the matter with his haid."

Willie Robertson, the sick boy, has at least improved in health during his jail experience. As one Southerner described him, "He is so dumb he tells the truth." When he first appeared on the stand he had a wild mop of kinky halfcombed hair that split into tufts in the back. Now he is well dressed and slicks his hair with anti-kink grease, as do most of the others. Strangely enough, this seems to irritate the good people of Morgan County even more than the crime the Negroes supposedly committed; it is a constant topic of bitter conversation how well the boys are now dressed; and they are ridiculed for taking pains with their appearance. The fact is that they are better mannered and better dressed than most of the spectators at their trials.

Olen Montgomery, the nearly blind boy, who was hoping to get free treatment from an eye specialist in Memphis when he was taken off a box-car far removed from the part of the train where the supposed rape occurred, seems an honest, simple boy. He is "funny." One likes him at once.

The two Wright boys are both very bright. The youngest, only thirteen when arrested, has since been jabbed in the face with a bayonet by a state militiaman who was supposed to protect him; his cheek is drawn into an artificial perpetual grin. The older, Roy Wright, is a fine type of Negro with a good mind and open, good-natured countenance. Because he is the most intelligent of the lot, he is the one most fiercely hated by his guards.

At the recent trial, watching the half-illiterate talesmen shuffle forward in response to Judge Callahan's sharp calling of their names, surveying their shabby clothes, their dull eyes, their vacant countenances, their malformed bodies, and seeing them fill the spittoons with tobacco juice, one felt a sense of shame. These are of our purest American stock. What has brought about their degeneracy?

As one rides through the countryside and sees the shacks in which they live, the boards warped and rotting, the windows broken and stuffed with rags, as one looks at the stoney hillsides and the pine trees standing in swampy pools, one realizes that these people in America in the twentieth century live worse than most peasants in the Balkans and certainly have fewer cultural attainments. They fear the Negroes. It is an economic fear. It is a physical fear. It is a cultural fear. It is a blind fear.

I have no space to summarize the evidence. Certainly in the recent trial there was not sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction. There was, in addition, a constant effort to obscure the defense testimony and to rule it out through tricky but legal procedure. The most vital evidence for the defense was barred. The prosecution could not call Ruby Bates, who has recanted her previous testimony and has declared the boys innocent. It could not call Orville Gilley, presumably an eyewitness, though it had him there under guard, for Gilley is now serving time in the Tennessee penitentiary for knocking down two women on separate occasions and stealing their purses. The prosecution, since the Horton trial, has not dared call Dr. R. R. Bridges, the official doctor who examined Victoria an hour and a half after the alleged rape, because in the first place his testimony contradicts Victoria's and in the second place, by not calling him, it prevents the defense from bringing in rebuttal testimony that would knock the prosecution's case into a cocked hat in any fair court in the land.

In one of the earlier trials a state's attorney, in his summation to the jury, waved Victoria Price's cotton drawers over his head and shouted a defense of Alabama's "pure womanhood." No other garments were offered by the state. Dr. Bridges had testified that there were no stains on the girls' clothing. At the recent trial the drawers were again waved in the courtroom, but this time they had become silk. Before the defense could make a protest, Judge Callahan testily ruled that they were inadmissible as evidence. But they had already had their effect on the jurors.

This is typical of the farce of the trial. Technically everything may have been perfectly legal. The record may read fairly, for all I know. But no one who was not present can realize the inflections of the court and the subtly changed meanings that were put upon words. In charging the jury Judge Callahan said that if such and such things were true, in a tone implying they probably were, then the defendant was a "rapist" and should be convicted. As he said these words, he glared over at the defendant in fury, his lips drew back in a snarl, and he rolled out the word "r-r-rapist" in a horrendous tone. The record will never show such things; but continue them hour after hour and day after day in an already prejudiced courtroom, and the sum total weighs upon the minds of the jurors.

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