Black Women and the Scottsboro Boys

Police escort two of the five recently freed “Scottsboro Boys,” Olen Montgomery and Eugene Williams, through the crowd greeting them upon their arrival at Penn Station in New York on July 26, 1937 (Photo: AP Photo, File).

On March 25, 1931, nine young Black men—Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, Andy and Roy Wright, Olin Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, and Eugene Williams—were arrested for allegedly raping two white women on a train in Paint Rock, Alabama. The teenagers were taken to Scottsboro, Alabama where all but one, the youngest, Roy Wright, were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death within a matter of weeks and without adequate counsel. The legal lynching of Black men falsely accused of raping white women often went unnoticed, but the Scottsboro Boys case galvanized an international movement. The International Labor Defense (ILD), a Communist Party front whose purpose was to defend “class war prisoners,” came to the defense of the men. As historian Robin Kelley has argued, the Scottsboro Boys were not typical of the ILD’s clientele because it generally focused its efforts on defending labor activists and communists. But the young men epitomized the link between racism and capitalism; they were unemployed and traveling the rails to find work to support their families.

The ILD, along with the Communist Party, launched a massive campaign to free the men, and recruited the defendants’ relatives, Party activists, and even one of the female accusers, Ruby Bates–after she rescinded her accusation. Beginning in March 1934, Working Woman, the Party’s women’s magazine, ran a series of articles focused on mothers organizing in support of the Scottsboro mothers and their sons. The Party’s focus on mothers has led some historians to conclude that the Party was a product of its time, reifying traditional gender roles and emphasizing maternalism. But that assumption is too simplistic. The Party adopted a different feminism, which recognized women as different from men and acknowledged that they faced different challenges at home and in the workplace that required different tactics. Motherhood was political, and Communists believed that revolution started at home. Mothers, as well as workers, had to be organized as part of the revolutionary vanguard for what they hoped would some day be a socialist America.

Many of the articles were a fundraising attempt by the ILD. The articles’ authors insisted that all working class mothers had to be responsible for defending the Scottsboro Boys and preached solidarity with their mothers. Anna Damon, the ILD’s acting national secretary, told Working Woman’s reading audience that the deaths of the Scottsboro Boys would be a threat to their children as well. Emphasizing that race was simply another class identity, the Party sought to convince workers that unity required all classes of people—all gendered, and raced classes—to unify. As Damon warned, the Scottsboro Boys’s execution would lead to “a wave of terror” against “all workers, Negro and white,” the employed and unemployed, women, immigrants, old and young. Damon instructed the magazine’s readers to organize in support of the Scottsboro mothers to save their sons or forfeit their revolutionary goals. If unity could not be reached, neither could socialism.1

The previous month’s issue contained a remarkable article drawing parallels between the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Scottsboro Boys. The article is remarkable in its claims that kidnapping was a capitalist problem and no longer existed in the Soviet Union. Kidnapping occurred, the author Judith Block argued, because the ruling class amassed so much wealth and the working class so little, that it made worker’s desperate enough to kidnap, and in the Lindbergh case, murder. The legal lynching of the Scottsboro Boys was also a capitalist byproduct. The Southern white ruling class could not wring enough profit out of workers if they did not convince the white working class that Black workers were inferior and unworthy of the same wages. When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, the newspapers ran sympathetic stories and President Roosevelt called the Lindbergh family. The Scottsboro mothers were not given the same consideration. Neither the mainstream press nor the president offered the Scottsboro Boys or their mothers sympathy.2

Audley Queen Mother Moore was active in the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s (Photo: Judith Sedwick, Black Women Oral History Project, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Flickr).

Working Woman also featured stories about the Scottsboro mothers and emphasized the desperate economic conditions of their families that forced the boys from home, all under the age of twenty and one not yet thirteen, to find work. Sadie Van Deen wrote about Mrs. Powell, Mrs. Wright and Mrs. Williams, three of the mothers who, like “millions of wives and mothers,” toiled as “sharecroppers, farm laborers,” and in white people’s homes to try and create a living for their families. Mrs. Wright made five dollars a week and her labor often left her tired and sick. She could only afford to feed her family bacon fat, cornmeal, white flour, coffee, and greens. They had no eggs, milk, cheese, or fruit, so when her sons Andy, who was nineteen at the time, and Roy, who was only twelve, were old enough to find work on their own, Mrs. Wright encouraged them to go.3

Though the Scottsboro mothers’ trust in the Communist Party wavered, especially when the NAACP became involved in the case, the Party used the mothers in public speeches and campaigns to raise funds for defense. Van Deen described Mrs. Wright’s campaign in New York City. Wright did not “beg or plead,” and aware of her role as a “mother of the working class,” she emphasized that her sons’  arrests and convictions were part of the “boss class program” of “hunger, terror, and lynching” of Black men and women. Mrs. Wright’s commitment to cross-racial and class solidarity was perhaps not as strong as Van Deen described it to her readers, but the Party was less interested in Mrs. Wright’s interpretation of events. Instead, Van Deen argued that the Scottsboro case was a symbol of Black oppression and the growing unity between the white and Black working classes. Talking directly to Party women, Van Deen claimed that women must unite to save the Scottsboro Boys, for the liberation of all women and children and the “whole working class.”4

The Party’s focus on cross-racial unity was essential to its programs and mission. It does not discount its commitment to the Scottsboro Boys and their mothers. It was the Party’s vocal Scottsboro Boys campaign that would convince some Black radicals to join the Party and commit themselves to the Party’s mission for class solidarity. The Party’s focus on gender added to its appeal. In the constant emphasis on the Scottsboro mothers in the pages of the women’s magazine, the Party sought to draw women into the fold who may not have identified with the larger working class struggle. The August 1934 issue featured an article titled “Think of Them” with the faces of four of the Scottsboro mothers staring back at readers. The article warned working women that “the plight of these mothers is your plight, their cause, your cause.” It instructed women to demonstrate in support of the Scottsboro mothers, “by that action which women and mothers are known” when they defend their families. Motherhood was not just a political role; it garnered radical action by women to defend their own and others’ families, and the Party hoped to organize women as radicals and as mothers.5

The April issue featured an article authored by Ada Wright in which she described the prison conditions the young men experienced, the lack of food, and their mistreatment at the hands of guards. The article was next to one allegedly written by Ruby Bates, the one-time accuser, now ILD speaker in defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The Party used these women, drawn out of obscurity and poverty into the limelight by tragedy, as representations of the need for cross-racial unity. Bates accused the men of rape to save herself from an arrest for prostitution and vagrancy. For the Party, Bates’s white privilege and her unjust accusations came out of poverty’s desperation. She was caught up in Southern “lynch terror” and used whiteness to protect herself.

The Scottsboro Boys’s arrests, convictions, and death sentences for false accusations symbolized all that was wrong with capitalism. Eventually, all the young men would be freed, some after spending decades in prison. The case fell into obscurity and few outside of Communist circles remembered it. But for a time, it drew attention to the Southern injustice system, and the potential for worker unity. Racial capitalism sewed divisions among workers to ensure its existence. The Party, committed to the defense of the men, was equally committed to organizing white and Black workers, women and mothers, for a Socialist America.

  1.  Anna Damon, “The Scottsboro Mothers Look To You,” Working Woman (December 1934), 10.
  2.  Judith Block, “Scottsboro: The Lindbergh Case and the Nine Negro Boys,” Working Woman (November 1934), 10.
  3.  Sadie Van Deen, “The Scottsboro Boys,” Working Woman, (March 1934), 5. For a more detailed discussion of Ada Wright’s efforts, see James A. Miller, Susan Pennybacker, and Eve Rosenhaft, “Mother Ada Wright and the International Campaign to Free the Scottsboro Boys, 1931-1934,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 2 (April 2001): 387-430
  4.  Van Deen, “The Scottsboro Boys,” 5.
  5.  Richard Moore, “Think of Them,” Working Woman (August 1934),  13.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.