Scottsboro, Ferguson, and Judge Horton

In 1931 nine Black young men were charged with raping two white women, on a train which eventually stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. The opinion of Southern white society was that the guilt of the nine men was palpable.

Whites . . .  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 . . . " (Hollace Ransdell, Report on the Scottsboro, Alabama, Case)

And the verdict they received was equally obvious:

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.

Human nature never changes. Today we see a situation in Ferguson, albeit with the colors reversed, which is perhaps not so very different.  A white police officer shoots a black teenager: merely to state the case is to make it. In the eyes of the community, the officer's guilt is manifest. All that is necessary is a quick verdict, in which the sentence is foreordained; but if that will not avail, then mob violence may accomplish the same thing -- all in the name of justice.

In Scottsboro, outrage would have been the response had the nine accused been released. Confronted with the possibility of a riot, James Edwin Horton, the presiding judge at the Scottsboro trial, did not hesitate. He issued the following statement:

I want it to be known that these prisoners are under the protection of this court . . .  This court intends to protect these prisoners, and any other persons engaged in this trial.  Any man or group of men that attempts to take charge outside of the law, are not only disobedient to the law, but are citizens unworthy of the protection of the State of Alabama, and unworthy of the citizenship which they enjoy.  I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer, and a man whom we should look down upon with all the contempt in our being . . . The soldiers here and the Sheriffs here are expected to defend with their lives these prisoners, if they must do it . . .  The man who attempts it may expect that his own life be forfeited, or the guards that guard them must forfeit their lives . . .

Governor Nixon of Missouri, on the other hand, typically responded about Ferguson in this way:

“Well I mean, we’re, um, it, uh, it, uh, you know -- our goal here is to, is to, is to -- you know, keep the peace and allow folks’ voices to be heard,” Nixon said on the call. "I don't spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-a-vis me.

“I’d prefer not to be a commentator on it,” he added.

He has not called those who placed a $5000 bounty for discovery of the location of the officer -- to what  purpose one wonders, since the officer is neither a fugitive nor are his whereabouts unknown to the lawful authorities -- unworthy of their citizenship; nor declared that those who would seek to attack the officer will have to trade their lives to get at him. 

Sam Liebowitz (defense counsel) said of the Scottsboro verdict, "This verdict is the act of bigots spitting on the tomb of Abraham Lincoln."

One could say today, that the reaction of the mob in Ferguson is the act of spitting on the tomb of Martin Luther King.

Judge Horton told prospective jurors:

It would be a blot on the men and women of this country, a blot on all of you, if you were to let any act of yours mar the course of justice. I trust you will not show by discourtesy or violence anything but a proper regard for law and order.  Your fellow-citizens would bow their heads in shame if any act of yours were to interrupt the course of justice.

If any of you are tempted, remember that they would consider it a disgrace and a shame upon the fair name of this and the other counties of this State to have anything happen here to reflect upon the administration of justice in our courts.  I expect from you proper restraint and a fair decision according to the law and the evidence.  We must be true to ourselves, and if we be true to ourselves we can't be false to any man.

And he later said, in his charge to the jury:

We are a white race and a Negro race here together -- we are here to live together -- our interests are together. The world at this time and in many lands is showing intolerance and hate. It seems sometimes that love has almost deserted the human bosom. It seems that only hate has taken its place. It is only for a time gentlemen, because it is the great things in life, God's great principles, matters of eternal right,  that alone live.  Wrong dies and truth forever lasts, and we should have faith in that.

One hopes that regardless of the somewhat feckless leadership being displayed in all quarters, the communities in Ferguson can take those sentiments to heart.