Racial Role Reversal
What the Scottsboro Boys and the Duke lacrosse players have in common.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

Imagine this: In a Southern town, a woman accuses several men of rape. Despite the woman's limited credibility and ever-shifting story, the community and its legal establishment immediately decide the men are guilty. Their protestations of innocence are dismissed out of hand, exculpatory evidence is ignored.

The Duke rape case, right? No, the Scottsboro case that began in 1931, in the darkest days of the Jim Crow South.

The two cases offer a remarkable insight into how very, very far this country has come in race relations, and alas, in some ways how little. For race is central to why both cases became notorious. In Scottsboro, Ala., of course, the accusers were white and the accused was black. In Durham, N.C., it was the other way around.

On March 25, 1931, a group of nine young black men got into a fight with a group of whites while riding a freight train near Paint Rock, Ala. All but one of the whites were forced to jump off the train. But when it reached Paint Rock, the blacks were arrested. Two white women, dressed in boys clothing, were found on the train as well, Victoria Price, 21, and Ruby Bates, 17. Unemployed mill workers, they both had worked as prostitutes in Huntsville. Apparently to avoid getting into trouble themselves, they told a tale of having been brutally gang raped by the nine blacks.

The blacks were taken to the jail in Scottsboro, the county seat. Because the circumstances of the women's story--black men attacking and raping white women--fit the prevailing racial paradigm of the local white population, guilt was assumed and the governor was forced to call out the National Guard to prevent a lynch mob from hanging the men on the spot. The nine were indicted on March 30 and, by the end of April, all had been tried, convicted and sentenced to death (except for the one who was 13 years old, who was sentenced to life in prison).

A year later, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions of those on death row, except for one who was determined to be a juvenile. By this time, however, the "Scottsboro Boys" had become a national and even international story, with rallies taking place in many cities in the North. Thousands of letters poured into the Alabama courts and the governor's office demanding justice.

The International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party USA, provided competent legal help, and the convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court because the defendants had not received adequate counsel. Samuel Leibowitz, a highly successful New York trial lawyer (he would later serve on the state's highest court) was hired to defend the accused in a second trial, held in Decatur, Ala. This turned out to be a tactical error, as Leibowitz was perceived by the local jury pool--all of them white, of course--as an outsider, a Jew and a communist (which he was not). Even though Ruby Bates repudiated her earlier testimony and said no rape had taken place, the accused were again convicted, this time the jury believing that Ruby Bates had been bribed to perjure herself.

Again the sentences were overturned, and in 1937--six years after the case began--four of the defendants had the charges dropped. One pleaded guilty to having assaulted the sheriff (and was sentenced to 20 years) and the other four were found guilty, once again, of rape. Eventually, as Jim Crow began to yield to the civil rights movement, they were paroled or pardoned, except for one who had escaped from prison and fled to Michigan. When he was caught in the 1950s, the governor of Michigan refused to allow his extradition to Alabama.

It is now clear to everyone that the nine Scottsboro boys were guilty only of being black.

When the accuser in the Duke case charged rape, the district attorney--in the midst of a tough primary election--saw an opportunity to curry favor with Durham's black community and exploit the town-gown tension found in every college town. He ran with it, inflaming public opinion against the accused at every opportunity.

To be sure, there was no lynch mob, which happily is almost inconceivable today. But many Duke University students and faculty, and many members of the media (Nancy Grace of Court TV comes to mind), simply plugged the alleged circumstances into their racial paradigm--wealthy white college jocks partying and behaving badly with regard to a poor black woman--and pronounced the Duke boys guilty. Wanted posters went up on campus with pictures of the accused; 88 members of the faculty sponsored an ad in the college paper effectively supporting the posters; and the university president suspended two of the accused upon their indictment (the third had already graduated), cancelled the rest of the season for the lacrosse team, and forced the resignation of the team coach.

Here is where the real difference between the Scottsboro boys and the Duke boys kicked in: not race but money. The Scottsboro boys were destitute and spent years in jail, while the Duke boys were all from families who could afford first-class legal talent. Their lawyers quickly began blowing hole after hole in the case and releasing the facts to the media until it was obvious that a miscarriage of justice had occurred. The three Duke boys were guilty only of being white and affluent.

The district attorney won his election. But when the case fell apart and his almost grotesque malfeasance was exposed, he first resigned his office and ultimately was disbarred from the practice of law. Duke University has just settled with the three students it treated so shamefully for an undisclosed, but given the university's legal exposure, undoubtedly substantial sum. Meanwhile, the 88 members of the faculty have yet to apologize for a rush to judgment that was racist at its heart.

The country has come a long, long way in regard to race relations since 1931. But we have not yet reached the promised land where race is irrelevant. Far too many people are still being judged according to the color of their skin, not the content of their character, let alone the evidence.