Summers: The tale of the Scottsboro Boys

Summers: The tale of the Scottsboro Boys

February 28th, 2016 by Jerry Summers in Opinion Columns

His finger pointing out the Statue of Liberty, attorney Samuel Leibowitz holds the attention of the four freed Scottsboro boys who visited New York City in July 1937.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

Much has been written about the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women in 1931. The landmark set of legal cases included a frameup, an all-white jury, rushed trials, an attempted lynching and an angry mob — which led to international outrage and legal reforms.

It is well documented that on March 25, 1931, nine Negro young men were charged with the rape of two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. All were hoboing on a Southern Railway freight train from Chattanooga bound for Memphis. The alleged crime occurred in Paint Rock in Jackson County, Ala. Scottsboro, the county seat, became the site of the first of the famous trials.

The Chattanooga legal community became involved in the case early on through the services of attorneys Stephen Roddy and George W. Chamblee, who represented the defendants.

Stephen Roddy was born in Centralia, Mo., in 1890, and attended the Chattanooga College of Law. He joined the law firm headed by Alexander W. Chambliss, who later became a justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. After serving in World War I, Roddy became prominent in Democratic politics at both the local and state levels. He was a candidate for attorney general of Hamilton County in 1926, running against the incumbent J.J. Lively (who won) and George W. Chamblee in a three-man race for the Democratic nomination.

When the Scottsboro trial was put on the docket just two weeks after the alleged crime in April 1931, a group of black ministers in Chattanooga's Interdenominational Ministers Alliance promised Roddy $120 to represent the Scottsboro accused.

No local attorneys spoke up for the defendants when Judge Alfred Hawkins called the cases, so Roddy stepped forward. The Chattanooga attorney attempted to avoid the appointment by claiming he did not want to try the case alone. The judge kept Roddy on the case by adding Milo Moody, a 69-year-old Scottsboro attorney who had not defended a case in decades, to represent the young black men.

Under trying conditions, Roddy and Moody gave a perfunctory defense on behalf of seven of the defendants. All but one of the nine defendants were eventually convicted of rape and sentenced to death.

Two organizations, the International Labor Defense (ILD), a Communist propaganda group, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP), competed to represent the defendants. Roddy had declined to stay on the case when informed that the fees would be raised by holding mass meetings among Negroes. Clarence Darrow of Scopes Trial fame declined to become involved due to dissension between the two groups.

The ILD employed Chattanooga attorney George W. Chamblee to join the defense of the case led by Samuel Leibowitz, a respected New York criminal defense attorney. Chattanooga attorney Raulston Schoolfield was allegedly asked to join the defense team but disagreed with Leibowitz's trial strategy of attacking the community and the two white girls. He refused to become involved.

Chamblee, the grandson of a decorated Confederate veteran and member of a prominent Tennessee family, had no trouble with unpopular defendants and causes including Communists and radicals. He represented many moonshiners during the Prohibition era and claimed he had tried more than 800 murder cases with none of his clients being electrocuted or hanged. A graduate of Mercer Law School, he served as Chattanooga city attorney and district attorney general in Hamilton County before becoming involved in Scottsboro.

Another Chattanoogan, gynecologist Edward Reisman Sr., testified for the defense that the physical facts of the medical examination failed to support the allegations of one of the women of being sexually assaulted by the defendants. In spite of Dr. Reisman's testimony and the inconclusive testimony of the initial examining physician, Dr. R.R. Bridges, the defendants were convicted. Judge James E. Horton courageously granted the defendants a new trial, which led to his defeat in the next election.

On Nov. 21, 2013, the Alabama Parole Board pardoned all defendants living and dead and instructed that their convictions be stricken from court records. Three Chattanoogans, Roddy, Chamblee and Reisman, took unpopular stands and played a role in the tragic Scottsboro trials, which help establish new constitutional standards involving competency of counsel and exclusion of blacks from jury service.

Two outstanding books on the trials stand out: Dan Carter's "Scottsboro," Louisiana Press (1986) and James Goodman's "Stories of Scottsboro," Vintage Books (1994).

Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rogers. Mickey Robbins, an investment adviser with Patten and Patten, contributed to this article. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.


Loading...