La Shawn Barber

Back in the days when raping a white woman was a capital offense in some southern states, an unfortunate group of black teenagers found themselves swirling in a steaming cauldron of race-fueled hysteria from which they’d never really escape.

During the Depression, people looking for work often hopped freight trains to distant cities. On the night of March 25, 1931—75 years ago—a fight broke out between black and white youths on a freight train to Memphis. The blacks forced all but one of the outnumbered whites off the train, and the whites told the stationmaster they’d been assaulted by a group of blacks. The stationmaster radioed ahead, and a white mob rounded up nine of the teens and took them to jail.

At some point thereafter, two white women also aboard the train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, claimed they’d been gang-raped by some of the teens. It took the National Guard to prevent the mob from lynching them that night.

On March 30, 1931, the “Scottsboro Boys” were indicted for rape. They were quickly tried and convicted, and eight were sentenced to death. Through subsequent trials and appeals all nine served time. Death sentences were overturned or reduced, and four of the men served significant time. The last Scottsboro defendant was paroled from prison in 1950.

Several weeks before I learned about the Duke rape allegations I discovered a site called Famous Trials. Legal historian Douglas O. Linder has meticulously researched and compiled documents on 48 high profile trials so far. The section on the Scottsboro Case includes personal letters, newspaper articles, court decisions, trial transcript excerpts, maps and commentary about the case.

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but one of my blog readers noted and documented similarities between the Scottsboro and Duke rape cases. There are huge and obvious differences between the cases, to be sure, but the similarities are instructive.

Both Scottsboro accusers were considered low-class or “white trash.” In the Duke case the accuser was a stripper, not exactly a high-class profession. In Scottsboro, Price came up with the plan to frame the teens because she feared she’d be charged with violating the Mann Act. The Duke stripper may have accused the men of rape to avoid arrest for a probation violation stemming from a 2002 drunken car chase with the police.

In Scottsboro, both accusers showed signs of recent sexual intercourse but no forcible rape. Price had sex with her married boyfriend, and Bates with her boyfriend two days before the incident. Medical examinations revealed small amounts of non-motile sperm in each woman and no physical trauma, inconsistent with a recent brutal gang-rape.

In the Duke case, semen found in the accuser belonged to her “boyfriend” and not to any of the three indicted lacrosse players. According to a recent defense motion in the Duke case, the accuser’s medical exam showed no signs of rape. The accuser told the examining nurse that she hadn’t been choked and that no condoms, fingers, or foreign objects were used during the alleged rape. The nurse noted that her body appeared normal.

At least one Scottsboro defendant had an alibi but was put on trial anyway. In the Duke case, at least one of the indicted men has an alibi but still may face a trial.

In Scottsboro, Bates changed her story and admitted she’d made it up. In Durham, Kim “Second Stripper” Roberts initially said no rape occurred and called the allegations a “crock” but changed her mind after she decided to financially benefit from the scandal.

In 1931 Scottsboro, politically powerful whites resented blacks. In 2006 Durham, politically powerful blacks resent white Duke elites. The district attorneys in both cases used racial and class resentment to political advantage.

The Scottsboro case was an egregious miscarriage of justice and so is the Duke case. Nine black teens were arrested and charged with rape because they were black; three white men were arrested and charged with rape because they are white. Race relations may have improved in the last 75 years, but when we allow race-fueled hysteria to deny men justice progress is impeded.


La Shawn Barber

Freelance writer La Shawn Barber blogs at the American Civil Rights Institute blog.