Book Note: Dan T. Carter’s Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South

Carter_SCOTSBOROcovsktch.inddIn addition to exploring new acquisitions, exhibits, and collections in the Bounds Law Library’s Special Collections, we will occasionally post short book notes on works relevant to Alabama and Southern legal history. We hope to explore both classic and more recent works, from a variety of disciplines and methodologies, with an eye towards illuminating the depth and breadth of the field.

Originally published in 1969, Dan T. Carter’s Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South was the first book-length account of the now infamous story of the Scottsboro Boys. In March of 1931, nine young African-American men, ranging in age from thirteen to twenty years old, were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train traveling from Chattanooga to Memphis. Local law enforcement searched the train near the town of Paint Rock, Alabama, and the trials took place in the nearby city of Scottsboro. The case attracted a great deal of media attention due to the youth of the defendants, the speed of the trials, the all-white jury, and the woefully inadequate nature of defense counsel. With the legal and economic assistance of both the American Communist Party and the NAACP, the cases were ultimately retried three times, resulting in prison sentences for five of the nine. The Scottsboro cases came to symbolize the gross miscarriage of justice that awaited African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. Carter’s book explores the numerous trials, appeals, retrials, lynch mobs, copious media attention, involvement of various political organizations, and eventual U.S. Supreme Court cases that resulted from those events.

The 2007 revised edition of Carter’s classic work adds both a new introduction and a new final chapter, in which Carter explores further repercussions of the Scottsboro Boys cases. Though several of Carter’s sources claimed that the two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, died in the early 1960s, they were in fact both still alive when the book was first published. After a subsequent documentary on the Scottsboro Boys was aired on NBC in 1976, the two women sued the television network for libel. Dr. Carter was called as a witness in the case, which was eventually dismissed. His last chapter recounts his experiences with that trial, as well as his final reflections on the story of the Scottsboro Boys.

Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South should be of particular interest to legal scholars not only for its excellent and detailed account of the many trials, legal and otherwise, endured by the nine young men, but also for its examination of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Powell v. Alabama, that laid the groundwork for Gideon v. Wainwright and the court’s determination that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel.

Ellie Campbell

 

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