Last week, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train over eighty years ago. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
For seven years, The Scottsboro Boys endured a series of trials they could not win. All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries.The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding African Americans from juries.
According to the LA Times, “Advocates believe the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.”
This gesture by a community of legislators in 2013 is an important step for reconciliation, but I’d like to also bring attention to a community leader who showed bravery at the time of the trial: Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood apart from the crowd and stood up for his beliefs about the mistreatment of the boys.
He was the only white clergyman to visit the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” in prison and was instrumental in connecting them to a team of lawyers from International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party, for the appeal trial. Upon seeing the northern Jewish lawyers, the prosecuting attorney exclaimed: “Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” On Yom Kippur in 1932, Goldstein defied intimidation and defended the Scottsboro boys in his sermon.
Words like those spoken by the prosecuting attorney and Goldstein’s persistence deeply troubled Beth Or’s board of trustees. Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gunter informed board members that if Goldstein did any more to assist in the Scottsboro trials, the Ku Klux Klan would organize a boycott of Jewish businesses in the city. Without permission, Rabbi Goldstein spoke publicly at a rally for the Scottsboro Boys. In April of 1933, Beth Or’s president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he either had to quit his political activities or leave. Though two board members defended Goldstein, he presented his letter of resignation to the board the following day. Some confessed anonymously to the Montgomery Advertiser that they secretly sided with Goldstein. Nevertheless, Beth Or’s board published a press release declaring the congregation’s commitment to segregation.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal team fought hard for many years to free the innocent men, but in the end could not overcome the systemic racism of the courts or the pervasive bigotry of the culture.
Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, even his inevitable defeat, should remind us not to accept the status quo in our communities. These pardons, eighty years in the making, come too late for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, and injustices persist in our judicial and penal systems to this day. May the actions of Rabbi Goldstein and all of those who fight for justice inspire us to struggle for equality and freedom, both for others and for ourselves.
Had you heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Did you know about Rabbi Goldstein’s outspoken defense of them?
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the tragic assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
While the entire world felt the loss of this leader, his dream lives on. He was one of many committed to furthering the cause of equality and justice.
Today, the Lorraine Motel has been converted into the incredible National Civil Rights Museum, documenting the troubled past while celebrating the victories achieved. While there is still much work to be done, there is also much pride in the movement’s continuing accomplishments.
Extinguishing one light, when so many others have been ignited, will not allow darkness to win.
Shalom, y’all, and may Dr. King’s memory – and dream – continue to be a blessing.
The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most compelling chapters of American history. State and federal governments were right to set aside a holiday to celebrate its achievements – and without a doubt, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the movement’s most eloquent and charismatic spokesman. His tragic death made him a martyr to the cause of justice. And yet, every Martin Luther King Day, I find myself resisting this exclusive focus on Dr. King, who has come to represent the sum total of the movement for most Americans.
This idea struck me most recently when I was attending a presentation by a group of students from McComb, Mississippi, who were taking part in a special locally-focused civil rights course. The two high school students noted that while they had heard of Martin Luther King, they had no idea of the civil rights history of their own town. Prior to the class, they had never heard of Herbert Lee, a leader of the McComb black community and fighter for civil rights, who was murdered by a state legislator in 1961. As part of the course, these students have interviewed several community members who played a role in the local movement.
These students have done tremendous work uncovering the civil rights history of their own community. This exciting McComb Legacy Project shows that all of our communities have an important civil rights history that needs to be preserved and understood. Our heroes are not just carved into monuments in Washington. They still walk the streets of our communities.
The most important lesson of the movement is how regular people came together to change this country. The best book about the Mississippi movement, Local People, by John Dittmer, sums up this idea in its very title. I fear that by focusing exclusively on the life and achievements of one great leader, we lose sight of the idea that we all have the power to change the world.
It’s true. We do have the collective power to change the world. It happened right here, during the Civil Rights Movement.
So today, challenge yourself to learn something about other great leaders like Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Aaron Henry, Fred Shuttlesworth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more. Even better, look into the civil rights history of your own community (be it north, south, east, or west). I am sure you will uncover local heroes who helped ensure the continuation of Dr. King’s dream.
Do you have family or community members who fought for civil rights? How will you honor this legacy?