Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

2001, Movie, NR, 84 mins


Essential American history, painstakingly assembled but painful to watch. In the annals of 20th-century American justice, the story of the "Scottsboro Boys" — nine young black men who were accused of raping two white women — ranks high on the list of the most shameful episodes. On March 25, 1931, as a Memphis-bound freight train barreled through northeastern Alabama, a fight broke out between white hoboes and a group of African-American teenagers. The youths managed to toss most of their white attackers off the train, but when the freight rolled into Paint Rock, Ala., an angry mob was waiting. The nine "negro brutes" — the youngest of whom was only 13 — were dragged off the train, roped, tied and hauled off to nearby Scottsboro where an even bigger surprise awaited them: Charges of gang rape, courtesy of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, white rail-riders of dubious reputation who, despite the complete absence of evidence, claimed to have been "despoiled" by the Scottsboro Boys on board the train. The state of Alabama, festering like an open wound with soaring unemployment, grinding poverty and pervasive racism, was anxious to demonstrate that lynching was no longer the law of the land, so they called in the National Guard and allowed the case to go to trial — four times. Seventy years later, the fate of the Scottsboro boys still has the power to grip, shock and anger, playing as it does on a triumvirate of forces that still holds sway over American culture: race, class and sex. Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker have done a tremendous job of sorting the facts from a tangle of fictions, and include perspectives from a wide variety of experts and testimonies from a surprising number of surviving eyewitnesses. Together, they do the whole, horrible episode justice, something awfully hard to come by in the state of Alabama in 1931. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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