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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Racism Revisited Via 'An American Tragedy'

April 02, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG

On the television screen briefly is a photo from the '20s or '30s showing a white girl of perhaps 9 or 10 with a smirky grin on her face.

It's not her grin but the apparent source of it that is so jolting, so stupefying, so horrifying, for in front of her, suspended from what appears to be a tree or utility pole, is a black man who has been lynched.

We worry today, with good reason, about the twisted minds of a few schoolchildren in Littleton, Colo., San Diego and elsewhere who devalue life when threatening or shooting their classmates and teachers to satisfy some grudge, hatred or psychotic need festering in their brains.

Yet what, so many years ago, was in the mind of this sweet-looking, brown-bobbed child in a white dress when she found amusing the poor, lifeless soul aloft in front of her, wrists handcuffed, hands resting serenely against the front of his overalls?

Had she witnessed the lynching, happily observing the man's writhing death dance as if it were a puppet show, having been led to this place by one of the white men visible in the antique photo's background? Had she been told of the offense against whites he was accused of committing, one heinous enough to earn him this vigilante white justice? Did she know him, know his name or know he had a name? Did she think of him as a man, a fellow human of flesh and bone, once a child like her with an easy smile? Or was he, to her, just another faceless, nameless small tick in waves of cotton, erased from life as punishment for the crime of having dark skin?

Inserted near the beginning of "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy," the lynching photo is a few seconds of foreshadowing en route to the main story of tonight's superb PBS documentary from "American Experience."

In fact, this poster girl for racism is just a fleeting pictorial footnote. Yet her queer and heartless smile defines the seething hatred greeting nine rail-riding African Americans, ages 13 to 19, when they emerged from a boxcar on March 25, 1931, in Paint Rock, Ala., and were accused of rape by two young females who had been riding the same hobo-packed freight train.

Though of questionable repute, the accusers had instant credibility in Paint Rock and later Scottsboro, where the initial trial would be held. They were white. That was crucial, for "common knowledge," especially in the Deep South, was that black men lusted for white females.

On view here was the thin line separating evil and dark farce. It must have been surreal for Victoria Price, 21, and Ruby Bates, 17--hard-living millworkers who reportedly had sometimes traded sex with men, white and black, for food and clothing--when being portrayed as the ideal of Southern womanhood whose honor had to be redeemed. Presumed guilty, meanwhile, were the "colored boys" they insisted had raped them.

Done deal.

The long, winding, harrowing road from done deal to big deal to final deal is traced soberly and masterfully by filmmakers Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker. As evidence of racial injustice mounts, their account shuns cheap theatrics and lets the case speak stunningly for itself. With Andre Braugher narrating, they use voices of other actors, historian commentary and archival footage and photos to relate this saga that has the defendants being called the "most unspeakable" criminals in Alabama history by one Southern newspaper, and "nine Negro brutes" by another.

The brutes turned out to be their persecutors, the slow, agonizing route to this awareness traveling across four trials, several struck-down verdicts and 45 years. The final exclamation point came when one of the nine defendants, Clarence Norris, was granted a pardon in 1976 by, of all Southerners, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace.

In the interim, the "Scottsboro boys," as they were called, spent years on Kilby Prison's death row, during which their boyhood vanished along with their hope. By 1946, however, all but Haywood Patterson--the first of them to be tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair--had been released. And two years later, he escaped and fled to Detroit.

Insights into the American character are as teeming here as the Depression-driven homeless and hobo jungles described early in the documentary. Its centerpiece is the second trial, a thicket of personal agendas assured when the Communist Party hires famed New York attorney Samuel L. Leibowitz to represent the accused, who were ineptly defended in their first trial by a local real estate lawyer.

The Communists see the trial as a way to rally African American support in the South, Leibowitz as a way to shine his shingle, and his Alabama opponent as a political fast track. "I'm going to prosecute these boys and ride their black asses right into the governor's mansion," he's quoted as saying.

As racial winds swirl ominously and the defendants gain public support in the North, we have blacks being oppressed by Southern whites, and Southern whites feeling oppressed by the rest of the nation.

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