It all began on a freight train in 1931, when nine black teenage boys innocently shared a ride with two young white women. They were met at Scottsboro, Alabama, by a lynch mob, and moments later, the boys were falsely accused of rape. Thus began one of the longest and most infamous court cases of the twentieth century.
‘The Scottsboro boys’ were snatched up by the American Communist Party, and defended by one of the country’s best lawyers, Sam Leibowitz. They inspired a song by Leadbelly, who warned, ‘the man gonna get ya…the Scottsboro boys tell ya what it’s all about.’
None of this helped, however, and their case ran to three trials. This heinous injustice marked a turning point for the Civil Rights movement: an end to all-white juries in the South.
Ellen Feldman’s Scottsboro (2008), nominated for the Orange Prize, is not her first venture into factually-based, historical fiction. Lucy depicted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with his wife’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, while The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank imagines a future life in America for Peter Van Pels (who, in fact, died in a concentration camp.)
Scottsboro is told from two viewpoints: Alice Whittier, a journalist, fictional but loosely based on two women who covered the case; and a real-life protagonist, Ruby Bates, one of the accusers. A prologue retells the events on the train from Ruby’s perspective, so the facts are never in doubt.
At first glance, Alice brings to mind the feisty ‘girl reporters’ of 1930s movies like His Girl Friday, while Ruby, a mill-worker and sometime prostitute, seems rather hapless. However, Ruby turns out to be tougher than she appears, and her journey from denial to confession – and back again – drives the story.
The gulf between the two women is apparent at their first meeting, when Alice muddies her shoes while walking along the railway tracks with a disapproving Ruby. ‘You ruined them shoes,’ Ruby complains later, ‘and you ruined me with all that talk about telling the truth.’
The shack that Ruby calls home, like that of her co-accuser, Victoria Price, is decorated with glamorous photos cut from magazines as she dreams of a better life. While the authorities claim to protect ‘the flower of Southern womanhood’, it soon becomes apparent that the women are merely pawns in a larger game.
The defence team, outraged by the bigotry of the South, think nothing of destroying the girls’ already fragile reputations, and any chance they might have of improving their lives.
Cynicism prevails in the courtroom, where grown men snigger about sex and jeer at ‘that Jew lawyer from New York.’ The Scottsboro boys languish in the ‘death house’, while outside, their predicament becomes a cause celebre. Sam Leibowitz, their pioneering lawyer, presents them to the court as ‘a poor piece of humanity’.
Even within this novel, the accused men are marginalised – which is, of course, only realistic – but nonetheless, Feldman creates a voice for the defiant Haywood Patterson and the group’s only true survivor, Clarence Norris, through Alice’s intermittent prison visits.
Initially, Alice’s journalistic perspective may seem a little dry, but she brings to light a restless, uncertain America during the Great Depression, where people are increasingly forced to choose between progress and prejudice.
And while Ruby’s ‘salt of the earth’ persona is, inevitably, set at odds with Alice’s uptight professionalism, she ultimately proves to be more complex than might be expected. Feldman creates an interior life for each of her characters, and a cautionary tale for readers.