It is with great sadness that I heard of Harper Lee's passing. The world has lost a great woman, writer, and voice.
As with many Americans of my generation, To Kill a Mockingbird, was a part of my youth and effected my perception about racial issues in the USA, particularly in the Deep South. However, the words in Harper Lee's book were nothing new or allusive to me when I first read the it so many years ago. The story of Atticus Finch is similar to that of my grand-father, and his first case in 1910 in Alabama. He defended a black man who had murdered a white man in defense of his family.
The prosecuting attorney was a bully my grand-father had fought in the school-yard as a boy, and who had told him before the trial began "We're gonna string that n---- up dead." My grand-father not only successfully defended the man, but Congressman George Washington Taylor was so impressed with my grand-father's defense that he brought him to Washington, DC--eventually leading to my grand-fathers intelligence work for the federal government before and during WWI. The biases and discriminatory attitudes of communities (as well as the witch-hunts against anyone who challenges them) were lessons learned long ago in my family, dating all the way back to the early Jim Crow Era.
However, the fictitious case Harper Lee uses in her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was probably most influenced by a well-known case in the early '30s, in which nine black men were falsely convicted of raping two white women. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, The Scottsboro Case provides some background,
The case began on March 25, 1931, when a number of white and black youths were riding on a freight train, traveling to see if they could find work. A fight broke out between a group of black and white hobos, and the whites were thrown off the train. They reported the incident to a stationmaster, who wired ahead for officials to stop the train at a town called Paint Rock. Dozens of armed men rounded up nine black youths and took them to jail. They were about to be charged with assault when two white women, dressed in boys clothing, were discovered hiding on the train. Although there was no evidence connecting the youth to the women, the nine youths were charged with raping the Two women, fearful of being prosecuted for their sexual activity aboard the train, agreed to testify that nine black youths had raped them.women. The women -- who had had sexual relations with some of the white men thrown off the train and fearing prosecution for their sexual activity with the white men -- agreed to testify against the black youths. The trial was held in the town of Scottsboro, Alabama. The all-white jury convicted the nine, and all but the youngest, who was 12 years old, were sentenced to death.
The flagrant discrimination in this case created such out-cry, that at the request of the ACLU, Hollace Ransdell, a young teacher, journalist, economist, and activist went to Alabama to investigate the controversial trials. Her narration of how racial profiling and hatred exposes the façade of "civilized" societies, that hides their immorality and double-standards under a thin veil of "well-tended farms and peaceful leisure in the air" is provided in her report to the ACLU in 1931, The Scottsboro Case,
Why the Boys Were Hated
Scottsboro, the county seat of Jackson county in northern Alabama, is a charming southern village with some 2,000 inhabitants situated in the midst of pleasant rolling hills. Neat, well-tended farms lie all around... A feeling of peace and leisure is in the air. The people on the streets have easy kind faces and greet strangers as well as each other cordially... the village celebrities, such as the mayor, the sheriff, the lawyers, lounge and chat democratically with the town eccentrics and plain citizens.
Strolling around observing these things, it is hard to conceive that anything but kindly feelings and gentle manners toward all mankind can stir the hearts of the citizens of Scottsboro. It came as a shock, therefore, to see these pleasant faces stiffen, these laughing mouths grow narrow and sinister, those soft eyes become cold and heard because the question was mentioned of a fair trial for nine young Negroes terrified and quite alone. Suddenly these kindly-looking mouths were saying the most frightful things. To see people who ordinarily would be gentle and compassionate at the thought o[f] a child - a white one - in the least trouble, who would wince at the sight of a suffering dog - to see these men and women transformed by blind, unreasoning antipathy so that their lips parted and their eyes glowed with lust for the blood of black children, was a sight to make one untouched by the spell of violent prejudice shrink.
The trial judge, A.E. Hawkins, a dignified, fine-looking, gray-haired Southern gentleman, who was absolutely convinced in his own mind that he had done everything to give the Negroes a fair trial, gave himself away so obviously at every other sentence he uttered, that any person with mind unclouded by the prejudice which infected him could have pointed it out. The other officials and citizens with whom I discussed the case also made it disconcertingly clear that they regarded the trial of the Negroes and the testimony given at it, not as an honest attempt to get at the truth, but as a game where shrewd tricks were to be used to bring about a result already decided upon in the minds of every one of them. They all wanted the Negroes killed as quickly as possible in a way that would not bring disrepute upon the town. They therefore preferred a sentence of death by a judge, to a sentence of death by a mob, but they desired the same result, and were impatient with anything that slowed up the conviction and death sentence which they all knew was coming regardless of any testimony.
They said that all negroes were brutes and had to be held down by stern repressive measures or the number of rapes on white women would be larger than it is. Their point seemed to be that it was only by ruthless oppression of the Negro that any white woman was able to escape raping at Negro hands. Starting with this notion, it followed that they could not conceive that two white girls found riding with a crowd of Negroes could possibly have escaped raping. A Negro will always, in their opinion, rape a white woman if he gets the chance. These nine Negroes were riding alone with two white girls on a freight car. Therefore, there was no question that they raped them, or wanted to rape them, or were present while the other Negroes raped them - all of which amounts to very much the same thing in southern eyes - and calls for the immediate death of the Negroes regardless of these shades of difference. As one southerner in Scottsboro put it, "We white people just couldn't afford to let these N[----]rs get off because of the effect it would have on other N[----]rs."
In answering the question then, of why ordinarily kind, mild people are aroused to such heartless cruelty against boys who have done them no harm, and if their case were fairly investigated quite likely would be found to have harmed nobody else either, one it brought up against the ugly fact that these pleasant people of the South, the Civil War notwithstanding, are still living on the enslavement of the Negro race. And this brings one to a second ugly fact, that when this is so, the subjugating race cannot afford to have any regard for decency, honesty, kindness, or fairness in their treatment of the black race. These traits are exclusively for relationships with their own people. The thing that stands out above everything else in their minds is that the black race must be kept down; as they put it, "The N[----]r must be kept in his place." Repression, terror, and torture are the means that will do it.
Why Society Neglected the Boys
The third question of why these nine young Negroes who have been sentenced to death after a hasty legal ritual has been said over their heads, have never been given a chance to be anything but the illiterate, jobless young itinerants they are, lies tied up with the whole problem of the denial of civil, social, and economic rights to the Negro in America. It can be answered completely only by a study of the discriminations practiced against the Negro in all phases of his life - educational, residential, economic segregation.
We pride ourselves in this country upon having a free and compulsory educational system. Why then did these young Negroes, all under age, not know how to read and write? Because the subjugating white race is not concerned to see that black children go to school. It is not to their interest to educate the Negro. They profit too much by having a race under their feet who will do the dirtiest, the hardest of their work. It is not to their interest to see that the Negro has the same legal and social rights as the white man. Southern whites feel to their marrow-bone only one thing about the Negro, and they say it over and over. Hundreds of thousands of them have been saying it for generations. They will continue to say it as long as anyone will listen. It is their only answer to the Negro problem. It is their reply to the questions of the Scottsboro case - the N[----]r must be kept down.
It is important to note that Ransdell offers us some insight into how and why the situation of hatred and oppression subsists and thrives in the Deep South, even today--and why oppression of any group exists. It is simply not in the interests of the oppressing group to change the situation. Stay-tuned for Part 2 of Harper Lee's Passing: A Legend Dies, But Not Sa Raison d'Etre