John Steele Gordon: What the Scottsboro Boys and the Duke lacrosse players have in common





[Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" (HarperCollins, 2004).]

Imagine this: In a Southern town, a woman accuses several men of rape. Despite the woman's limited credibility and ever-shifting story, the community and its legal establishment immediately decide the men are guilty. Their protestations of innocence are dismissed out of hand, exculpatory evidence is ignored.

The Duke rape case, right? No, the Scottsboro case that began in 1931, in the darkest days of the Jim Crow South.

The two cases offer a remarkable insight into how very, very far this country has come in race relations, and alas, in some ways how little. For race is central to why both cases became notorious. In Scottsboro, Ala., of course, the accusers were white and the accused was black. In Durham, N.C., it was the other way around.

On March 25, 1931, a group of nine young black men got into a fight with a group of whites while riding a freight train near Paint Rock, Ala. All but one of the whites were forced to jump off the train. But when it reached Paint Rock, the blacks were arrested. Two white women, dressed in boys clothing, were found on the train as well, Victoria Price, 21, and Ruby Bates, 17. Unemployed mill workers, they both had worked as prostitutes in Huntsville. Apparently to avoid getting into trouble themselves, they told a tale of having been brutally gang raped by the nine blacks....

It is now clear to everyone that the nine Scottsboro boys were guilty only of being black....

Here is where the real difference between the Scottsboro boys and the Duke boys kicked in: not race but money. The Scottsboro boys were destitute and spent years in jail, while the Duke boys were all from families who could afford first-class legal talent. Their lawyers quickly began blowing hole after hole in the case and releasing the facts to the media until it was obvious that a miscarriage of justice had occurred. The three Duke boys were guilty only of being white and affluent.

The district attorney won his election. But when the case fell apart and his almost grotesque malfeasance was exposed, he first resigned his office and ultimately was disbarred from the practice of law. Duke University has just settled with the three students it treated so shamefully for an undisclosed, but given the university's legal exposure, undoubtedly substantial sum. Meanwhile, the 88 members of the faculty have yet to apologize for a rush to judgment that was racist at its heart.

The country has come a long, long way in regard to race relations since 1931. But we have not yet reached the promised land where race is irrelevant. Far too many people are still being judged according to the color of their skin, not the content of their character, let alone the evidence.


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