Unclaimed baggage in Scottsboro
10/29/2002 12:00:00 AM - Marvin Olasky
SCOTTSBORO, Ala. --Is there a plaque or memorial anywhere in
this city to commemorate the event that led to a major U.S. Supreme Court
decision 70 years ago on Nov. 7? "I would not think so," Scottsboro
librarian Marie Garrett laughed. "That's not the thing we would want to
How does a city live down a reputation, I asked Dot Bean, the
kind, white-haired person in charge at the Scottsboro-Jackson Heritage
Center. "It's hard," she said. "When people think of Scottsboro, that's all
they know. We don't like to dwell on it."
That's an understatement. There's apparently no indication at
the courthouse or on the shelves of the Scottsboro Public Library that the
"Scottsboro Boys" case -- nine young black men condemned to death for rape
by an all-white jury oozing with racism -- ever happened. The manager of the
Village Square Antique Mall was trying to sell a lampshade with a monkey
base, but she gave a quick "uh-uh" and smiled when asked if any antiques
related to the Scottsboro trial might be available.
It's a shame that Scottsboro, the seat of Jackson County, is
known for the one thing town fathers want forgotten. One memorial in the
center of town lists the names of 55 county residents killed fighting in
World War I, 135 killed in World War II, 38 who went to Korea or Vietnam and
never came back and one -- Jeremy Foshee -- killed in action this year in
the Philippines. Those sacrifices are worth remembering.
Scottsboro has a lot going for it, as a glossy, 106-page book
sponsored by the Scottsboro/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce shows. A
full-page ad on page three shows a girl and two boys -- one white, one
black -- sitting on a curb and waving small American flags. Times have
changed during the 71 years since nine blacks had a fight with some young
white men on a train and ended up being found guilty of rapes they did not
One problem back then was that there was both a miscarriage of
justice and a miscarriage of the miscarriage. The Communist Party USA,
feeling its oats during Depression days, trumpeted the verdict throughout
the world as evidence of America's hopeless corruption. In so doing, the
CPUSA hurt the cause of the defendants, who were propagandistically more
valuable dead than alive.
The Communists were wrong on two counts. First, the Supreme
Court showed the value of the "capitalist appeals process" when it ruled on
Nov. 7, 1932, that the rights of the Boys had been denied when they did not
receive competent legal counsel. Second, key Alabamans, including Judge
James Edwin Horton Jr., sifted the evidence closely and concluded that
injustice had been done.
The result was that, after many wrong turns and false starts,
four of the defendants left prison in 1937 (much too long) and the others in
1943, 1944, 1946 and 1950 (much, much too long). In the second half of the
20th century, Scottsboro and the whole South changed. Most whites and blacks
still do not sit down regularly at the table of brotherhood, but blacks
whose grandparents were serfs now indisputably have the rights of citizens.
City fathers probably want Scottsboro to be known not for its
past of civil wrongs but for its becoming-famous Unclaimed Baggage Center.
The big store sells items lost on or by airlines and unclaimed. When I
visited, multiple copies of books in the "Left Behind" series were
available. (Perhaps people reading them suddenly disappeared from their
The store also displays remarkable unclaimed objects such as
bagpipes and a violin made in 1770. Items left behind but not displayed
include a shrunken head. But the biggest piece of unclaimed baggage is the
Scottsboro trial, and ignoring it leads to shrunken history and ignorance
about how far we've come.