400 Years Blog #28 – Targeting Black Teens in Scottsboro, the Mississippi Delta, and Central Park

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Fictional, exaggerated, and misplaced accusations of sexual assault haunt Black men in America. Over a century of racist promotion of the black sexual predator myth has welded together fearful fantasy and terror.  This myth is alive today in the anxious glances, assumed criminal guilt, and sensational headlines that sell newspapers. White men like me, not direct victims of this dynamic, must deconstruct this myth. It affects the perspective of jurors, prosecutors, and the public.

This myth made targets of nine unfortunate teenagers known as “the Scottsboro boys”: Clarence Norris (19), Charlie Weems (19), Andy Wright (19), Haywood Patterson (18), Olin Montgomery (17), Ozie Powell (16), Willie Roberson (16), Eugene Williams (13), and Roy Wright (12). Accused of raping two women on an Alabama train in 1931, they went through hell.

Although there was no solid evidence and witnesses changed their stories, accusations from Victoria Price and Ruby Bates whipped up public thirst for revenge. Without experienced lawyers, each defendant was tried multiple times before all white juries. While some people understood the racial bias at play and  fought for a fair trial, all but two of the defendants served prison terms. None received reparations.  Ruby Bates confessed to fabricating her story about the assault. Three of the defendants died before their posthumous pardons in 2013.

In 1955 a single black teenager, 14-year-old Emmett Till, was targeted and suffered a horrible fate. Carolyn Bryant accused this Chicago teen, who was visiting family in Mississippi, of whistling at her and making sexual advances. Hours later, in the middle of the night Bryant’s husband Roy, along with J. W. Washington, kidnapped Till. They tortured and mutilated him beyond recognition, tied him to an industrial fan with wire, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River.

In 1956, after escaping conviction, the murderers received about $4000 for their confession published in Look Magazine. 52 years later, in 2008, Carolyn Bryant admitted that she made up the most sensational parts of her testimony. Mamie Till, Emmett’s broken-hearted mother, insisted on an open casket funeral to teach Americans about lynching.  She said, “…what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.” In 1989, the fate of five teenagers in Central Park showed we had not learned this lesson.

 

  • Lesson #121: Sadly, brutal racist myths make sensational headlines that sell newspapers.
  • Lesson #122: White teens riding the rails, who claimed it was “a white man’s train,” gathered rocks and tried to force all Black men off. Humiliated when they failed, their false accusations of being attacked by Black teens began the legal nightmare for the Scottsboro Boys.
  • Lesson #123: Nearly all the jurors in the many trials of the Scottsboro Boys were white.
  • Lesson #124: It could have been worse. Despite the Scottsboro miscarriage of justice, some judges and jurists who appreciated how systemic racism was at work, spoke out in defense of the teens.
  • Lesson #125: Many claimed it was the Jet Magazine cover of Emmett Till’s bloated, mangled face that started the modern Civil Rights movement.
  • Lesson #126: After the death of her son, Mamie Till committed herself to education and social justice advocacy for over four decades.

 

 

 

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