• Print

How the Communists Helped the Scottsboro Boys

In response to:

A Presumption of Guilt from the July 13, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

I write to give credit where credit is due in one paragraph of Bryan Stevenson’s outstanding essay “A Presumption of Guilt” [NYR, July 13]. It was not the NAACP but rather the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of the Communist Party USA, that launched the international campaign to save the “Scottsboro Boys” from Alabama’s electric chair. NAACP officials believed that the defense should should be conducted quietly, in the courts. The defendants and their parents chose the Communists, and the NAACP played only a peripheral role in the case.

James Goodman
New York City

Bryan Stevenson replies:

James Goodman is correct about the International Labor Defense. He’s the author of a terrific book on Scottsboro, Stones of Scottsboro (1994), and it was the ILD that provided legal assistance to the Scottsboro teens, primarily by getting to the families of the young men before the NAACP. It’s also true that the Communist Party did the most effective organizing around the case in the years immediately following the trial. However, it was the NAACP that ultimately won support in the black community and framed what happened in Scottsboro as part of a broader effort at confronting Jim Crow and racial violence against black people. By the end of World War II, the ILD had lost influence and it was the NAACP, especially the work of Walter White, that shaped the narrative about the legacy of lynching and its impact that would fuel the activism of the civil rights movement and the efforts of the Legal Defense Fund in particular.