Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman

Strangers on a train and bigotry on trial
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The Independent Culture

In 1931, two groups of youths, one white and one black, and two white women dressed as men, ride a freight train in Alabama. These "hobos" have more in common than they can ever admit, all young, poor and powerless amid the Great Depression. The fight begins "with a white foot on a black hand" and ends with the blacks throwing the white boys off the train.

But word gets out and the train is stopped by an angry white mob who discover to their self-righteous delight the presence of the two women. The nine black young men, one only a boy of 13, are accused of rape, and eight sentenced to death. Their trial in Scottsboro is a showcase of injustice, incompetence and bigotry. In an atmosphere ugly with the threat of lynching, they are judged by an all-white jury for a crime that never happened.

Ellen Feldman tries to shape this turbulent and complex passage into a novel, but because it rests so convincingly on real events, it remains an astute history. She narrates through two voices, the fictional Alice Whittier, and Ruby Bates, one of the two women who accused the men of rape.

Alice is an idealistic, ambitious young journalist who travels down to Alabama to investigate the case for a left-wing paper in New York. She befriends Ruby, supporting her when she recants her testimony. Although she seems almost too liberated for her time, Alice acts as the novel's conscience and guide.

Feldman's clear-sighted vision of the Scottsboro case reveals not only violent racism in the South, but also anti-Semitism, sexism and a contempt for poor whites. Ruby, in her rather predictable folksy way, observes: "Nothing brings white folks together, no matter if they're nose-in-the air church ladies, fresh-with-their hands mill bosses or plain old linthead trash, faster than a colored boy, a piece of rope and a tree." Yet Scottsboro proves her wrong; the years of retrials expose divisions in class, gender, religion and politics. Alice, upper-class and educated, is allowed a sexual life, while Ruby will always be "a tramp". The uneasy alliance of liberals and Communists breaks down when the latter are accused of bribing witnesses.

There were no perfect heroes in Scottsboro. The case made the careers of many Northern activists and writers who converged on the trial and retrials: "We did not set out to exploit. The lawyers and the Communist Party members and the reporters and the do-gooders wanted only to help and we did help.., but we also managed to appropriate the story for our own ends."

There were real innocents: African American young men who lost years of their lives, their health and hope. It is for them, and the bitter lessons they taught everyone who touched the case, that Feldman's book has been written and should be read.

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