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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Scottsboro case

LeMaistre remembers the Scottsboro case, when a number of young black men faced accusations of rape from two white women. Despite the judge's efforts to enforce fairness, "the jury already had its mind made up" about the defendants' guilt. (They convicted the men and sentenced them to death, although none of them were executed.) The case stirred up a lot of racist and nativist sentiment in the area, LeMaistre recalls—white southerners threatened to lynch the defendants and resented the New York lawyers, "many of them Jewish," who served on the defense. "Race was pretty much on everybody's mind" then, he remembers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN J. GOING:
In the 1930s one of the most controversial issues in Alabama was Scottsboro. What was your recollection of it?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well the Scottsboro case attracted a great deal of attention in the trial. They had a judge who came from Athens, Judge Horton, Jim Horton. He was scrupulously fair in trying that case. I don't think there was any doubt that he leaned over backward to make sure that the evidence that was to be presented on behalf of the defendants got to the jury. It didn't do any real good because the jury already had its mind made up I'm sure. At that time there was a great deal of dissatisfaction throughout this part of the country with the representation of people like the Scottsboro boys by lawyers in New York—many of them Jewish—who attracted a lot of flack from the Ku Klux Klan, people like that. One of the attorneys for the Scottsboro group was later appointed to the Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, I think by Roosevelt—I'm not sure. But they were good lawyers, but at the time we had a similar case here in Tuscaloosa. [NOTE: August, 1933. See Anthony J. Blasi, Segregationist Violence and Civil Rights Movements in Tuscaloosa.] An alleged rape and two black defendants trying to escape from capture. Then after they were convicted in a local court, the national guard was called to protect them. They put them on a train to take them to another prison and the members of the—it wasn't a mob, it wasn't that big, but the people who were protesting were lined up outside the courthouse. Some of them got in automobiles and drove out to Cottondale and uncoupled the car from the train when the train slowed down. But they got 'em back together and got 'em out of here. But the group that was hiring the defense lawyers sent a telegram to Judge Foster on the morning of the trial protesting the "lynch court" was the phrase they used; putting these people on trial in such a prejudiced atmosphere and with lynch lawyers and a lynch judge to preside over it. I recall that Jack McGuire and Charles LaFrance were the two lawyers that had been appointed to defend these people, and they filed suit against the Western Union Telegraph Company and recovered a substantial judgment because of their accepting and delivering that libelous telegram. So it was a situation where the subject of race was pretty much on everybody's mind, and the subject of public discussion.
ALLEN J. GOING:
This was in the '30s?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Mid-'30s. Yet it was not really in any way at that time connected with a civil rights act or proposed legislation. These were simply protests against what they called our way of life. They were largely directed against radicals who were of the Eugene Debs stripe—people like that, and against the International Labor Defense (ILD) which furnished the defense counsel. It was not, as it became in the '60s, connected with any proposed bit of legislation. One of the ironic things about the Scottsboro case is that one of the Attorney General's assistants (Tommy Knight, as I recall, was the Attorney General at that time), one of the assistant attorney generals was Buster Lawson.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Oh yeah.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Who later became a trustee of the University of Alabama and was on the Supreme Court of Alabama for a long time. The irony that I'm speaking about: Buster Lawson went into the navy when the war started, and his assignment was with the Bureau of Personnel in Washington, D.C. placing [laugh] black sailors in their permanent billets. I don't think anyone up there ever realized that the Lieutenant Lawson who was doing that job was one of the prosecutors in the Scottsboro case.
ALLEN J. GOING:
As I understand it, in the beginning the defense was more in the hands of some local, uh, the Commission on Interracial Justice tried to do some things before the outsiders began to push in, before it became internationally publicized.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The American Civil Liberties Union was interested in it but the actual defense was in the hands of a different group, the ILD. It became identified with the Communist organizations that later were the subject of investigations by Martin Dies and the un-American Activities Committee.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But during all of that time the evidence became pretty strong that there wasn't anything to the case really. The two women were obviously of questionable virtue, to put it mildly, and that's where it put the judge and the Alabama public officials on the spot. The sentiment had built up so against this outside interference. But there were other cases where that didn't develop.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The protests and the money raised for the International Labor Defense and other causes in this connection were not directed at civil rights as we know them today. They were simply directed at constitutional rights. They were claiming the rights under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So it was not quite the same thing that sprung up later when there was a great move after '48 to get some kind of civil rights act on the books to implement the Constitution.