Unclaimed baggage in Scottsboro

Posted: Oct 29, 2002 12:00 AM
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 remember." 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 commit. 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 seats.) 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.