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The Jewish man who defended the Scottsboro Boys

During Black History Month, which came to a close on Feb. 28, stories and experiences of black Americans are remembered and highlighted. For the National Library of Israel blog, The Librarians, one of those stories was that of the Scottsboro Boys, who were defended by a Jewish attorney. Zack Rothbart recalls when eight black youths were hastily sentenced to death in 1931 Alabama. Global outcry ensued, and a flamboyant New York Jewish lawyer was sent down to defend them. Rothbart’s piece has been edited for length. Read his full essay at The Librarians.

The Scottsboro Boys, with attorney Samuel Leibowitz, under guard by the state militia, 1932. (Wikipedia)

It’s been just over a century since the 1931 case of the “Scottsboro Boys,” when a group of black teenagers were accused and convicted of gang rape of two white women. But the case was fraught with procedural issues, including lack of suitable legal representation and mobs of locals outside the court threatening to take the law into their own hands was the “right” verdict not reached.

Meanwhile, civil rights groups across the country decried the convictions and death sentences. The cause was adopted by activists worldwide.

The affair inspired countless works of literature, including that of Yiddish playwright Leib Malach, whose work based on the events debuted in Warsaw in 1935, as the actual case’s legal proceedings were still ongoing. The locally and internationally acclaimed play — titled “Mississippi,” even though the case took place in Alabama — highlighted the injustices of the American South, resonating with Eastern European Jewish audiences.

But the Jewish impact was far greater than the play. Soon after the initial verdict, Samuel Leibowitz a well-known, successful and flamboyant defense attorneys in New York, was called in. (Among his clients? Al Capone.)

By late 1932, the International Labor Defense (ILD), a legal organization founded by Clarence Darrow among others, which was associated with the Communist movement, had taken the lead in defending the Scottsboro Boys. The case was seen by the communist leadership as an opportunity to not only achieve justice for the “boys,” but also to secure significant support for communism among blacks.

Leibowitz, however, was not a communist. Before agreeing to defend the Scottsboro Boys alongside the ILD’s general counsel, Joseph Brodsky, Leibowitz demanded that he be allowed to manage the defense without any political interference. He also refused any payment for his services, paying all expenses out of pocket.

He had reviewed the case thoroughly and was convinced that there was no way he could lose.

The fact that Leibowitz was Jewish and brought in by communists certainly did not help his cause — nor that of his clients — once the retrial commenced. His style and bravado were not welcome in Alabama. His New York manner and approach were seen as discourteous, not suitable to Southern mores. The courtroom was appalled, for example, when at one point he demanded that the prosecutor address a black witness as “Mr. Sandford,” rather than simply as “John.”

Born in Romania, Leibowitz had immigrated to America with his family when he was four years old and studied law at the prestigious Cornell University. In a April, 1933 interview in which he asserted that he was “strictly orthodox,” he also voiced his opposition to anti-Semitism. He recounted that when someone suggested he change his name to something less Jewish, “I promptly told him to go to hell.” In fact, anti-Semitism played little to no role in Leibowitz’s personal and professional life — until the Scottsboro case.

Prosecutor Wade Wright used blatant anti-Semitic language and innuendo in his arguments. After one of the alleged victims recanted her claim that she’d ever been raped at all, and her new testimony was corroborated by someone named Lester Carter, Wright referred to the man as “Mr. Carterinsky,” describing him as “the prettiest Jew” he had ever seen. He even said that if Carter “had been with Brodsky another two weeks he would have been down here with a pack on his back a-trying to sell you goods…”

In his closing remarks, Wright asked the jury, “Is justice going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?”

Leibowitz responded with the following words:

“I am proud of my state. I would die for it just as I would die for my nation. We have as decent people in New York as you have in Alabama. They talk about communists to befuddle you. I’m a Roosevelt Democrat and I served my country when the Stars and Stripes were in jeopardy and when there was no talk of Jew or Gentile, white or black . . .

“And they talk of ‘Jew money from New York.’ I’m not getting a cent for my services, or even for the expenses for myself or my wife down here. I’m not interested in Communism or any other ‘ism.’”

He called the previous trials “an insult to G-d himself and a mockery of justice,” and argued that the prosecution was simply “appeal[ing] to prejudice, to sectionalism, to bigotry.”

Before the re-trial started, Joseph Brodsky, the labor leader who was also part of the defense team, had countered Leibowitz’s confidence, telling him that he would “be a sadder but wiser man” after the trial. And, in fact, Brodsky’s prediction proved more accurate than Leibowitz’s, as the first retrial ended with another guilty verdict and another death sentence.

His participation and the involvement of other “outsiders” had not always been welcome, even by the defendants and their families themselves. It was sometimes seen as a distraction or even a hindrance, as the white jury resented the interference of the Northern outsiders. The defendants and their lawyers were surrounded by armed guards, following repeated threats to lynch them.

Yet Leibowitz and his team kept fighting. One of his main initial points of attack — that blacks had been excluded from serving on the original jury — ultimately helped set an important legal precedent that would ensure black inclusion on jury rolls across the US.

The Scottsboro Boys spent years in prison, but thanks to the efforts of Leibowitz and others, they were all ultimately spared the death sentence. In the years and decades that followed, all of the “boys” had their convictions overturned or were pardoned. This included three posthumous pardons granted by the governor of Alabama in 2013, more than two decades after the last of the Scottsboro Boy passed away.

Leibowitz stayed in touch with some of the Scottsboro Boys, even providing personal and professional help and support. Leibowitz defended a few more high-profile clients and then became a judge, ultimately serving on the New York Supreme Court.

According to Quentin Reynolds’ book, Courtroom, a few years after Leibowitz’s involvement in the Scottsboro trials, he was on vacation in Miami and decided to visit a local courtroom in session. He noticed that there was a single black man on the jury and when the proceedings recessed, he told the defense attorney that he had a question.

“I’m from the North, and I never knew you allowed Negroes on your juries here in the South. Isn’t that something new?” he asked.

The lawyer bitterly responded, “Yes it is something new. This is the first time in our state we have had a [expletive] on a jury and it’s all on account of a son-of-a-bitch named Leibowitz from New York. He came down to Alabama a few years ago to try a case and somehow he got to the Supreme Court in Washington, and damned if we haven’t had to put [expletive] on our juries ever since.”

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