Saturday 21 February 2015

Scottsboro - My Journey to Alabama

The sign above the platform at Scottsboro Railroad Station

This weekend sees Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys come to the sold-out end of its acclaimed West End run, a troubling yet brilliant show that first stunned London back in December 2013 at the Young Vic. I knew nothing of this chapter of American history before seeing Susan Stroman's production, but I was to leave the Young Vic stunned by the musical's technical and stylish genius and deeply moved by its tragic tale.

My journey to Scottsboro actually began in autumn last year. The show was about to transfer to the West End's Garrick Theatre and I had been invited to interview flown-over Broadway star James T. Lane, together with whirlwind New York impresario Catherine Schreiber who (along with Paula Marie Black and the Young Vic) was producing. As our conversation ended and the microphone was switched off, a chance remark led me to mention to Catherine that I had an impending business trip to visit clients across the USA. As I outlined my intinerary, Schreiber commented that one of the towns on my route was barely an hour's drive from Scottsboro and how I must visit the museum that marks the Scottsboro Boys' story. She made the necessary introductions and very soon I was in touch with the museum's founder and director, Shelia Washington.  

So it was that one overcast October morning last year I found myself deep in America's Deep South, driving along Alabama's stretch of the Lee Highway and heading for Scottsboro. My car's GPS (sat-nav) suggested that I detour from the fast route and follow the last ten miles into town along an old country lane that hugged the tracks of the Southern Railroad line. The show’s New York cast recording (a London recording is to be released soon) was playing in the car and as trees, track and churches sped by, the emotional power of heading towards that humble Southern town, now stained with one of the last century's most terrible miscarriages of justice, became quite overpowering. I could not have guessed that I was shortly to experience one of the most humbling and inspirational days of my life. 

Writing in The Guardian two years ago, Ed Pilkington succinctly describes the events that led to the arrest of the Scottsboro Boys.

Paradoxically, the Scottsboro Nine had nothing to do with Scottsboro. On the night of 25 March 1931 the boys – the youngest 12, the oldest 19 – were hoboing on a freight train heading west to Memphis, Tennessee, when some of them got into a fight with a group of white youths. The white boys jumped off the train as it passed through the Scottsboro area and complained to the local sheriff that they had been attacked and with that one dubious claim Southern justice cranked into motion. 
The view from Scottsboro platform. The Boys' train came from this direction

By the time the train reached the next stop a posse of armed local white men had formed and the group went from carriage to carriage, arresting all the blacks they could find. As they were searching the train, they also came across two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.
The view from Scottsboro platform. The Boys' train headed towards this direction

It's hard from the distance of 80 years to appreciate fully what it meant for white women to be found even in the vicinity of black men in 1931. Any physical contact, however remote, was taboo.
That taboo probably explains why one of the women, Price, invented the story that she and Bates had been gang raped – it was a ruse to avoid any risk of being jailed overnight herself. For the black young men accused of raping the two white woman, the risk was of a different magnitude. In the 1930s Deep South it meant only one thing: death. As the Arkansas poet John Gould Fletcher put it, if a white woman swears that a black man even tried to rape her, "we see to it that the Negro is executed".
When the nine terrified boys were taken to the nearest town, Scottsboro and put in the local jail, there was only one question that needed settling: would they be executed judicially or at the end of a rope slung from the nearest tree. There were 13 lynchings in the US in 1931 and the nine came very close to dramatically inflating that figure – the sheriff had to call in the National Guard to hold back a large and angry mob.

Although Scottsboro is the seat of surrounding Jackson County, its town square is surprisingly quiet. There is a tiny shopping plaza that includes a US Marines recruiting centre, whilst around the corner is the proudly emblazoned Scottsboro Gun & Pawn store. By American standards it’s a very small city, lacking even a town centre McDonalds. On realising that I had ventured out without a notepad, the writer's essential tool, I looked around the square to purchase a replacement. There was neither a stationers nor a supermarket to hand but I did spot a homely looking gifts and trinkets store. Wandering in, the charming owner and a true Alabama Lady for sure, helped me out by selling me a blank notepad from her stock of admin supplies. I was profoundly grateful and we struck up a brief conversation for a visiting Englishman turns out to be a rare event in Scottsboro. It was when this delightful shopkeeper asked me why I was in town and I explained that I was there to meet Shelia Washington at the museum, that the hitherto famously warm Southern hospitality turned icy.

Lee Highway, Jackson County ..... there's a pattern emerging in these names. Those men were the Confederate heroes of the American Civil War, who took the South’s battles to the North and ultimately lost. And while time and (some) legislation has moved on, many troubling old attitudes still straddle the Mason Dixon Line. Where most local authorities provide some funding to museums or places of culture within their jurisdiction, Washington was to tell me that the Scottsboro city fathers offer her museum no cash whatsoever. Not one dollar. Her revelation chilled me, for whilst the Jim Crow days may be gone, Scottsboro still remains a town struggling with its identity.

The Scottsboro Boys Museum
The museum is sat next to the eponymous railroad line and as I parked my car, what seemed like a never-ending freight train was rolling by. Travelling slow, it blew its beautiful mournful two-tone horn, an iconic sound that so defines an American train. Aside from the fact that trains fascinate me, I was transfixed. I stood, watched and listened before knocking on the museum door.

Created in a now de-consecrated church and where the former chapel is still filled with pews, it was in this tiny hall in April 2013 that Alabama's Governor Bentley signed the State’s Senate Bill and House Resolution that formally pardoned and exonerated the Scottsboro Boys. If Schreiber is a powerhouse of theatre-producing, then Washington is a beacon to those who campaign for racial equality. She drove the campaign that led to the Scottsboro Boys' exoneration and amongst the good people of the South, she is a hero. 

Aside from an unexpected flurry of media interest, where two local newspapers and a TV news station had turned out to cover my visit, (for media link see below) I was touched that not only had Washington opened the museum specially for me (it usually opens twice a month), but that most of its Board of Trustees had turned out to meet with me too. I met with Caroline Lynch, the daughter of the now long deceased Dr Marvin Lynch and one of the two doctors who examined the women on the night of the alleged rapes, finding no evidence of sexual assault. The doctor truthfully reported his findings at the time, but they were ignored by the Scottsboro prosecutors as an inconvenient truth. It was not until some years later, that the medic felt safe enough to re-assert his clinical evidence.

Caroline Lynch

It is important to remember that amidst the evil turmoil that surrounded the Scottsboro Boys' wrongful arrest, there were acts of principled bravery from a number of white people. Most heroic perhaps was Scottsboro's Sheriff Matt Wann who supervised the shepherding of the boys, away from the baying mob, to the comparative safety of the town's jail on the night of the arrests. I met with Scottsboro citizen Clyde Broadway, who told of his uncle being tasked by Sheriff Wann to "go buy a skein of rope" to help corral the boys and keep them huddled together away from the crowds. One year later, Wann was to be shot dead on duty.

Clyde Broadway

But what of Shelia Washington and what drives this remarkable woman? Pilkington writes: 
Young Shelia Washington had never heard a single word of the story of the "Scottsboro Boys", as they were then called, despite having been born and brought up in the small town where such visceral history had been made. When her father found her reading the memoir he snatched the volume from her hands and ordered her never to open it again. "He said he didn't want me to know the harmful things that were contained inside," she says.
Shelia Washington

It is Washington's understated strength and conviction that is so profoundly humbling. She told me of her brother who had been brutally murdered in jail whilst serving his sentence. His killers had never been formally identified, let alone brought to justice and Washington is convinced that the murder was racially motivated. She believes she knows the identity of his killers too, but resignedly accepts that there is little she can do to achieve justice for her dead brother. It has been the harnessing of her rage at the injustice meted out to her brother that sparked her to champion the cause of the Scottsboro Boys. Even as I write this, Washington’s next mission is to locate and to mark the burial places of each of the nine men. Her commitment is unshakeable.

Against a backdrop of endemic racism, The Scottsboro Boys’ trials were to prove a focal point for the nation at that time, though as 87 year-old composer John Kander was to tell me recently:
I remembered that when I was just learning to read I would see on the newspaper, pretty much daily in those early reading days, something about The Scottsboro Boys. I didn't know what that was or who they were, but they were always mentioned, they were always called that title. As I began to be able to read and understand more, it seemed to me that they were always spoken of as a group. Then they disappeared altogether.
Whilst the story might have disappeared from the national headlines, it had already cemented a foundation for the emergent American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks, one of the key civil rights figures in the 1950s was a steadfast campaigner for the Scottsboro Boys and she in turn was to inspire the support of Martin Luther King. 

Recent events in the USA and elsewhere in the world tell us that the essential cause of the Scottsboro Boys is a fight that still goes on, with America in particular still having deep issues to address. Speaking in the Scottsboro Boys Museum on the day of Governor Bentley’s pardon, Alabama’s Representative Laura Hall said: 

Hopefully, our great State of Alabama can be Alabama the Beautiful, where justice is dispensed equally and fairly without regard to race, sex, social class or religious belief.

Hall’s is a noble hope, sincerely to be commended, but there is much to be done to realise it. It is to the credit of Scottsboro’s Shelia Washington however, that such momentous progress has already been achieved.

Media Links:

Click here to visit the website of The Scottsboro Boys Museum

1 comment:

  1. A Fascinating historical event to be explored thank you Jon