From left to right: Ruby Bates (accuser who recanted), Mamie Williams Wilcox, Viola Montgomery, Julia West Hamilton (president of Phyllis Wheatley YWCA), Janie Patterson and Ida Norris. Credit: Courtesy of Flickr

Heyward Patterson was one of the ten people killed in the Buffalo massacre last week. His name reminded me of Haywood Patterson, one of the nine young Black men falsely accused, arrested, and sentenced to prison in the 1930s. In the accompanying photo to this column Janie Patterson, Haywood’s mother, is second from the right, holding her purse and wearing a white hat. She and Ada Wright, the mother of Andy and Roy Wright, would be relentless in the campaign to free their sons in this defining incident on race in America.

On March 25, 1931, in Paint Rock, Alabama, the nine Black youths were arrested on a freight train after a fight among Blacks and white men was reported to local authorities. According to several accounts of the encounter, the Black youths got the best of the whites and threw them off the train, and they took their complaint to the local sheriff who telegraphed the information ahead to the next station where the youths were arrested. At the time of the arrests two white women were also taken into custody from the train, both dressed like men and accused the Blacks of raping them.

Thus began one of the celebrated cases in American jurisprudence with a number of political groups rushing to defend the accused, including the NAACP, the Communist Party of America, and the International Labor Defense (ILD). It was often these groups that staged the defense rallies giving the Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be known, national and international exposure far beyond the little towns from which they sprung. They, like the others on the train, were riding the rails in search of employment during this era of the Great Depression. The mothers of the boys were often at the rallies and lent their voices to the cry for justice and freedom for their incarcerated sons.

We have posted one of the many pieces of literature distributed by the ILD, whose national secretary was William Patterson, and of no akin to the accused. Those notices often depicted the nine youths, and on this one Janie Patterson, Haywood’s mother is featured. This was usual practice by the ILD and its aim to heighten and dramatize the case. As the ILD stated, “The ILD published stationery with counterpoised pictures of all nine Scottsboro Boys with an incarcerated Haywood Patterson and his mother, Janie Patterson. In one piece of literature from 1933, the letter called for a meeting the day after a march on Washington, D.C., led by the ILD with Ruby Bates and Janie Patterson in the vanguard of dignitaries. The protesters received a rebuff from President Roosevelt, who failed to meet with them or acknowledge their cause. The stationery carried the title Scottsboro New Trial Emergency Fund, a campaign necessitated by the April 9th conviction of Haywood Patterson a second time at the trial in which Ruby Bates recanted her earlier testimony. Thus, the images of Haywood and Mrs. Patterson reminded those receiving this letter what was at the heart of the protest––the life of Patterson and the other Scottsboro Boys and the Scottsboro Mothers’ sad, but steadfast, presence in the protest movement.”

The Daily Worker, a publication of the Communist Party, placed the arrival of Mrs. Patterson on the front page of the April 11, 1933, edition of the paper, noting that she would be speaking that evening at Union Square. What the mothers did for their sons, the Scottsboro Boys, would be replicated again and again, from Mamie Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, down to Gwen Garner, the mother of Eric Garner. From a life of ordinariness, they were suddenly catapulted into the public spotlight, and like Mrs. Wright and Mrs. Patterson, the mothers quickly adjusted to the new life as they struggled to save many others.

In a second installment we will continue this important story about racial justice in America.

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