John Bradshaw - The Scottsboro Nine
This is It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. Justice. When I say that word, "justice," what do you think of? If I asked you for another word for justice, what would that word be? Fairness? That's what I think of. Honesty? Integrity? What would justice look like in a courtroom setting? The fair shake, an even playing field, equity. Surely it would mean to be heard, represented, for the facts to be made known. Justice and truth, now, they're closely related, aren't they? They're like twins. Surely they are. Human beings have always had their challenges when it comes to administering justice. Any time you have people involved, justice is going to be unevenly applied. But you'd like to think society will do its best to get it right.
Extreme cases are easy to find. A man who'd been convicted for burgling two empty homes was arrested on possession of $10 worth of illegal drugs and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Hard to call that justice, isn't it? Even the judge said it was wrong. A man stole a $2.50 pair of socks, but it was his third strike, so he, too, was sentenced to 25 years to life under California's three-strikes law. Justice can be complex, and it's often true that the one who can afford the best lawyer ends up getting the best justice. The entire Bible centers around justice, or you could say, injustice. The central point of the Bible is the cross. It's because of the cross that people can be saved. That's where Jesus bore the sins of the world: the cross. But the death of Jesus on the cross was an act of gross injustice. Jesus didn't deserve to die on the cross, but He died there anyway, the victim of the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of the world.
The pledge of allegiance of the United States of America, written in the 1890s and adopted by Congress in 1942, goes like this: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". Now, what did that say? "With liberty and justice for all". Which is good, in theory. Just over a decade before the pledge was adopted by Congress, a long journey to justice began for a group of young men. It was 1931. They boarded a train here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That long journey to justice took a detour through some very serious injustice.
In 1931 the main Chattanooga railroad station was right here. Today there's a hotel and a little train they call the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, named after the song recorded by Glenn Miller and his orchestra, the first song to receive a gold record. Back in the day, trains routinely left the station heading west, and nine young men, or boys actually, clambered aboard a train a little way down the tracks, a train that was heading to Memphis, where they hoped to find work. It was 1931, right in the middle of the Great Depression. There were plenty of hobos riding the rails that day, March the 25th. The nine boys were looking to make a new start in life. They were aged between 12 and 19. Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, and Charlie Weems were Georgians. Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams, and Andrew and Leroy Wright were from Chattanooga. Apparently, a fight broke out on the train between the black youth and a group of white boys after one of the white boys stepped on the hand of one of the black boys.
The white boys were then forced off the train. Then they lodged a complaint at the station in Stevenson, Alabama. When the train stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama, about 80 miles from Chattanooga, the nine boys were apprehended, and things got rapidly worse. About 20 minutes after the youth had been detained, one of two white women who had been on the train claimed that she and her friend had been raped by the nine black boys. They were detained in the jail in Scottsboro, Alabama, nine accused rapists, one just 12 years old, and one who had a disease that made it impossible for him to have participated in the alleged attack. The whole thing was absurd, but by evening, several hundred men had gathered in front of the jail. The mayor of Scottsboro appealed to the crowd to disperse. Armed lawmen guarded the jail in an attempt to hold off the crowd. But that crowd wasn't going anywhere. They wanted the nine boys. They intended to lynch them.
Sheila Washington: It was the Jim Crow era where whites ruled. If somebody said a black did it, a black didn't have a chance of even making it inside of a courtroom before he was hung on a tree. And they lived to make it to the courthouse, and that night a mob came with a telephone pole, ready to knock the door in and go in and get those boys and bring them out and hang them, and the sheriff steps out in the middle of the crowd and said, "Before you get to them, you have to go through me".
John Bradshaw: The governor of the state authorized 25 armed men to be sent to Scottsboro, but by the time they arrived, the crowd had mostly dispersed. But if the Scottsboro Nine had survived one night, it seemed they wouldn't survive much longer. The universe rests upon justice. If God were not just, if there were no justice in heaven, where would we be? First John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness". The Bible says that justice and judgment are the foundation of God's throne. Therefore, people who claim to be followers of God must care about justice. But for these nine boys, justice would take a backseat to injustice as their lives played out. I'll be back in a moment.
Thanks for joining me on It Is Written. In 1931, three-and-a-half thousand people lived in Scottsboro, Alabama. It was a farming town, suddenly thrust into the national spotlight when nine black boys, or young men, aged between 12 and 20, were accused of rape by two white girls. According to one newspaper, the two girls were treated by local physicians for terrible injuries they sustained in a crime "too revolting to be printed". Except...none of it was true. One of the girls said that the boys came after them shooting pistols and brandishing knives. She claimed that she'd been punched in the face and had a knife held to her throat. Scottsboro was agitated. National guardsmen were brought in to keep large crowds away from the jail so that the boys wouldn't be lynched. Instead, they would stand trial.
You would hope that that would be justice, except that a fair trial was impossible. The Scottsboro Nine were represented initially by a lawyer from Chattanooga, an alcoholic, who met with the boys for less than half an hour before they went on trial, a trial in which their lives were at stake. If they were found guilty, and society had already declared their guilt, they'd be executed. Two of the boys were tried first, but the trial was a farce. There was contradictory testimony. One of the women, Victoria Price, spoke in great detail about the crimes perpetrated against her, but her friend, Ruby Bates, couldn't corroborate much of what Miss Price said. But what truly shocked the courtroom was that one of the nine defendants testified that, yes, he had witnessed the attack; yes, the girls had been raped; yes, the other eight boys were guilty.
He said later that the night before the trial he was taken from his cell and beaten and told that if he wanted to save his life, he should testify against the others. The two who were tried first were found guilty and sentenced to death. The crowd in the courtroom celebrated wildly. The first trial took a day and a half, while the other three trials took less than a day, combined. Eight of the Scottsboro Nine were found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld all but one of the death sentences. They said a 13-year-old defendant shouldn't have been tried as an adult. But the United States Supreme Court overturned the verdicts, saying that the boys had been denied competent legal counsel.
There are tons of details we could go into. Some of the rhetoric was... well, not the sort of thing I'd want to repeat here. Justice? There was no justice afforded these boys. It was patently obvious they hadn't raped anyone at all, that there hadn't even been a rape. But this kind of thing happened all the time. A black defendant, an accusation, an execution, if not a lynching, and life went right on. It was the 1930s. Slavery had ended 70 years or so earlier, but racism had not. And in the South, African-Americans were routinely discriminated against. The system guaranteed it. Now, this is the sort of story that people in a free country would listen to and say, "That had to have happened somewhere else, in some banana republic". But it didn't. It happened in "the land of the free and the home of the brave".
Nine young men, nine boys, accused of having committed a ghastly crime, that brought with it the ultimate penalty, levied against them by a society that was determined to keep African-Americans in their place. Now, of course, not all white people agreed with this behavior, not even all whites in the South. But this is the way the system worked. The belief was that no white woman who accused a black man of rape could possibly be lying. So an accused Negro was a guilty Negro. And even if he wasn't, penalties like these would reinforce the power structure that existed. During a constitutional convention 30 years earlier, Alabama's political leaders stated that their goal was to secure permanent white supremacy in Alabama.
Justice? The retrial was held in Decatur, Alabama, about 80 miles from Scottsboro, southwest of Huntsville. The thought was this would give the boys a shot at a fairer trial. But the overwhelming view in Decatur was that the boys were as guilty as sin. During the trial in Decatur, one of the physicians who had examined the two young women told the judge that the women were lying. The judge urged the physician to testify to that end in court. The doctor explained to the judge that there's no way he could do that. If he testified against the two women, if he testified in favor of the nine black boys, there was no way he'd be able to go home to Scottsboro. He said to the judge, "God knows I want to", that's testify and tell the truth, "but I can't".
Sheila Washington: The timeframe, people were scared. When you had no law, and you will have the Klan to come after you, and you see a mob outside of your house with white robes on, that was fearful not only to blacks, but more fearful to whites, because they know, "This is going to happen to me just like it's happened to the blacks". But he had a conscience. Although it was six years later, he told the truth.
John Bradshaw: The Scottsboro boys were now being represented by a brilliant New York City attorney named Samuel Leibowitz, who exposed the prosecution's case for exactly what it was. By now the NAACP were involved in supporting the boys, as was the Communist Party, who saw the trial as an opportunity to try to grow their influence. One of the women actually recanted and said that there was no attack, no rape, that the story was all made up. But the jury found the boys guilty again. Again they faced the death penalty. But again the convictions were overturned because of Alabama's practice of excluding blacks from juries.
So they were tried again. One of the boys was found guilty and sentenced to 75 years in prison. It was the only time a black man had ever been found guilty of the rape of a white woman in Alabama and not been sentenced to death. Another was sentenced to 105 years, another to 99 years. Charges were dropped against four of the boys, but by then they'd spent six years in prison for a crime that had not been committed. Ultimately, all of the boys were freed. One served 12 years, another a total of 19, one was paroled 15 years after the boys were apprehended, and there was no fairytale ending. None of the boys went on to be a businessman or a politician. Not one graduated from college or even high school. None of them became a minister. This was simply a tragedy. Nine poor, poorly educated boys, the most vulnerable members of society, were falsely accused, deprived of a fair trial. The intent at first was to lynch them, then execute them, then put them away for as long as possible. Their lives were ruined.
Sheila Washington: I realize the state of Alabama had dug a hole so deep that they was too embarrassed to say, "We made a mistake," and come out and admit they're wrong. Instead, they held on to these boys' lives until they almost just killed them. They squished the life out of them in prison.
John Bradshaw: This whole sorry thing shows us how hatred and ignorance and distrust and vilification can destroy lives. And not only the lives of the hated, but also the lives of the haters. People had to live with what they'd done for the rest of their lives. And of course, they did. So how do you get this out of society? There is a way. We'll look at that in just a moment.
It was a colossal miscarriage of justice, carried out on American soil, and not back in the Dark Ages, in the 1930s. And in the 1940s, while Americans were fighting for freedom in Europe and the Pacific, they were withholding justice from one of their own, simply due to the color of a person's skin. So how does a society get past this sort of thing? You can change laws, but you can't legislate a change of heart. Education helps. Time. You'd hope that as one generation dies off, it's replaced with a more enlightened generation. And no doubt that's happened to a great extent. Alabama isn't the same state it was in the 1930s. America isn't the same country. But it would be foolish to think that there's no racism or racists or hate. Of course there are. So how do you get rid of that? Only the gospel of Jesus can change a sinful human heart.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said, "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new". That's 2 Corinthians 5:17. Speaking of heaven, the Bible says, "But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles". God told Moses that some people would have their names blotted out of His book. Heaven isn't a place for hateful people. If there's someone who sympathizes with the plight of the Scottsboro boys, it's Jesus. He came to the world, according to the Bible, "to seek and save that which was lost". He came to the world to make known to the world what the Father was truly like. He came to demonstrate love. He came to the world to, to lift people up. He gave hope to tax collectors and to harlots and fishermen and farmers. And He refused to condemn even those who nailed Him to the cross. The Scottsboro boys, uneducated, naïve, couldn't have saved themselves if they'd lived a hundred lifetimes.
Even a lawyer as sharp as Samuel Leibowitz could only win acquittals for four of the boys. Four were prosecuted and given lengthy sentences. Two of them escaped, and two were paroled. In a similar way, Isaiah said Messiah would be oppressed, afflicted, and taken "as a lamb to the slaughter". But why? Why would He allow Himself to go through that? Hebrews 2:18 says, "For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted". The passage states that because Jesus as a human being has gone through what we've gone through in facing temptation, He is able to aid; He's able to help us in what we go through. Jesus knows what it's like to be tempted. So when you're tempted, you can go to One who knows from experience what you're going through. Jesus knows what it's like to be rejected. Even His own family members turned against Him. His closest followers fled from Him. His own church gave Him up to die on a cross.
And Jesus knows what it's like to be falsely accused. He knows injustice from experience. This is Matthew 26, starting in verse 59: "Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward and said, 'This fellow said, "I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days".'" False accusations. Truth wasn't being pursued here. When Jesus said that they would see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, that was it. The high priest cried, "Blasphemy"! And the crowd said, "He is deserving of death"! And then began a stream of indignities that didn't stop until Jesus was dead on a cross. So now, this Jesus, who was so poorly treated, the victim of the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of the universe, how did He treat people who are actually deserving of the full penalty of the law?
Remember, "The wages of sin is death," according to Romans 6:23. So how did Jesus treat people? To the thief on the cross He said, "You will be with me in paradise". A woman taken in adultery, a victim herself, is brought into the presence of Jesus by a group of men. Jesus ignored the men at first, simply writing on the ground with His finger. John 8:7 says, "So when they continued asking Him, He lifted up Himself and said unto them, 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.'" Justice could easily have said, "She deserves to die". But in this case, justice said, "You're a bunch of hypocrites, and there's a better way to deal with this woman's situation". Verse 9 says, "And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst".
Jesus then asked the woman where her accusers had gone. "Has no one condemned you"? Jesus asked. She answered and said, No, no one has accused me. And then Jesus said some of the most wonderful, hopeful words in the entire Bible: "Neither do I condemn you". And He urged her to go on her way "and sin no more". God is a God of justice and forgiveness. He forgave David and Solomon and Manasseh and others for their, for their terrible sins. In Psalm 136, the Bible says 26 times in 26 verses that God's mercy endures forever. It often takes real time for justice to finally be served. According to the book of Revelation, the Christ of heaven will one day declare, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still". And then He says, "And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be".
Justice will be done. It isn't too much to desire justice in this world. It isn't too much to expect justice. Justice is the right of everyone. But justice in the hands of flawed human beings will never be perfect or perfectly administered. But one day, one day when there's no more sin, one day when there's no more death, one day when there's no more hate, one day when there's no more bitterness, one day when sin has run its course, one day, one soon day, there'll be no more injustice. One day Jesus will return, and when He does, everything will happen at heaven's behest. We look forward to that day, and we say with John who wrote Revelation, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus"!
Our Father in heaven, we thank You that Your plan for our future and for our eternity is perfect. Keep us until then. And as we live in a world that is so often marked by injustice, give us hearts that are one with Yours. We pray for justice in the world, but we pray for the heart that will remain constant no matter what we face. We thank You for the hope that we have in the return of Jesus. Take our hearts now; make them Yours, not just now but forever. We pray and we thank You in Jesus' name. Amen.