When, in 1931, nine young black men were pulled off a train in rural Alabama and accused of raping two young white women who happened to be on that same train, no one could have imagined the ultimate outcome. Earlier, the young men had drawn attention to themselves by tossing some white boys off the moving train and, subsequently, the train was halted by a group of vigilantes seeking revenge for that insult. The two white women aboard the train were just a bonus to the mob, an excuse for a quick lynching that the young black men would barely escape.
Ellen Feldman recounts this real life event largely through the eyes of Ruby Bates, one of the young women who falsely accused the young black men of raping her and her friend Victoria Price. Feldman alternates between the first person accounts of the real life Ruby and fictional reporter Alice Whittier in order to explain the events of the fifty years following the original arrest of the nine Scottsboro boys. Interestingly, and very effectively, the Scottsboro boys themselves remain largely in the background – as they did for most of the lawyers, reporters, judges, Communist Party members, NAACP members, and others who were happy enough to exploit the plight of the boys for their own gain.
It was, of course, impossible for any of the nine accused rapists to receive a fair trial in Jim Crow era Alabama. Even after Ruby Bates recanted her original testimony and a new trial was granted to one of the defendants, a new jury returned the same guilty verdict and death sentence. No matter how many juries or courtrooms heard the evidence against any of the nine, the result was invariably the same because, as Feldman makes clear in the novel, no white person could vote anything other than guilty if he wanted to live in the state of Alabama after the trial.
Feldman uses the relationship between reporter Alice Whittier and accuser Ruby Bates to get at the heart of how this kind of thing happens. Ruby, an impoverished part-time mill worker whose family barely sustained itself during the Great Depression, was desperate for cash money. She and the more aggressive Victoria Price were part-time prostitutes who enjoyed the men and attention as well as the extra cash they received from selling themselves. Ruby was a follower, directed by Victoria to give false testimony, but she was no fool. She gained fame by changing her testimony to favor the defense and, for a while, was able to turn that fame into a new life in New York City supported by those seeking freedom for the Scottsboro boys.
Scottsboro is a clear snapshot of an era of American history during which racial minorities had few rights in the South, a time when poor whites, economically no better off than their black neighbors, marked their own place in society by demonstrating to those neighbors that they were racially superior to them. By telling her story through the eyes of one of these desperately poor whites, Ellen Feldman makes what happened, in the context of its times, almost understandable.
What happened in Scottsboro makes for sad reading, a story without a happy ending, but sometimes it takes a novel like this to remind one that it all happened to real people, people with simple hopes and dreams, people who were victims of their times, accused and accuser, alike.
Rated at: 4.0