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Oscar-nominated film airs on PBS Monday night

The Scottsboro Boys: Nine lives overlooked, lost

Samuel L. Leibowitz, one of the country's most prominent defense attorneys, was hired by the legal arm of the Communist party to represent the nine teenagers accused of rape
Samuel L. Leibowitz, one of the country's most prominent defense attorneys, was hired by the legal arm of the Communist Party (U.S.) to represent the nine teenagers accused of rape  

In this story:

Alabama to the USSR

Seeds of civil rights

'Goodwill with an agenda'

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- In March 1931, two white women accused nine black teen-agers riding a hobo freight train of rape. The men were arrested near Scottsboro, Alabama, and put on trial. Eight were sentenced to death, despite flimsy testimony from the women, one of whom later recanted. The ninth, 13, got life in prison.

The case of the "Scottsboro Boys" did not end there, but instead went on to became an international cause celebre that reached the highest court in the land. Civic groups across the country deplored the verdict, and even the Soviet Union took notice of the events in an Alabama courtroom. The American Communist Party embraced the case, sending renowned New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz to argue on the nine's behalf.

'Scottsboro: An American Tragedy' will air on 'The American Experience' Monday, 9 p.m. EDT, on most PBS stations.

After years of winding its way through the courts (including the United States Supreme Court), five were freed, while four served several years in prison. The case, which took place in the heart of Jim Crow South, is considered a precursor to the modern American civil rights movement.

Despite its repercussions, the story of the Scottsboro nine, though well-known to American historians, has failed to capture the general public's imagination.

Filmmakers Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman hope to change that with "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy." The documentary, nominated for an Oscar, airs on "The American Experience" on most PBS stations Monday at 9 p.m. EDT.

Alabama to the USSR

James Goodman's 1994 book, "Stories of Scottsboro," enticed the two filmmakers, Anker said in an interview last week.

Accusers Victoria Price, 21, and Ruby Bates, 17, pictured in 1932
Accusers Victoria Price, 21, and Ruby Bates, 17, pictured in 1932  

The Scottsboro case had been filmed before -- a 1976 TV movie called "Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys" -- and had been the topic of a Court TV special. But it hadn't been the subject of a documentary, and the filmmakers soon found out why.

"(T)here was very little visual material available," said Anker. "We spent a good deal of our five years digging that up."

The two dug in some interesting places.

"The courtroom photographer's relative had a bag of negatives, so many of our courtroom photos are from that discovery," recalled Anker. "Then we found some footage at the end of our process that was in former Soviet archives that was specifically about the Scottsboro case -- footage of the mothers of the defendants, footage from outside the courtroom, footage of rallies in Harlem, all of which was a tremendous discovery."

The pair also interviewed several surviving attendants and used a large number of eyewitness accounts to document their film.

Seeds of civil rights

Not everyone was happy to see the Scottsboro case resurrected.

"For (many people in Scottsboro), it's history repeating itself -- northerners coming down South and telling a story of Southern bigotry which forever associates it with the name Scottsboro," said Anker. "At the end of the film, there are three townspeople who say that if the train had only gone 300 more yards it would've been in a different county."

Still, not everyone was reluctant to talk about the case. Most Alabama residents the duo interviewed were "very open and cordial," and most Scottsboro townspeople were hospitable, Anker said.

A protest march in Washington, D.C., May 8, 1933
A protest march in Washington, D.C., May 8, 1933  

"They clearly wanted their side to be told, and while some wouldn't talk to us, some were eager to," he said.

They discussed a potentially explosive topic. In the Alabama of that era, the suspects were in real danger of getting lynched, and the state tried to do its job at least within some legal boundaries, Anker said.

"Scottsboro was significant because it embodied a period in Alabama history where there was a movement to at least show that justice could be done in an Alabama courtroom," he said. Indeed, presiding Judge James Horton set aside the initial guilty verdicts, sacrificing his legal career in the process.

The case served to galvanize the nascent civil rights movement, and that's what makes it noteworthy, said Anker.

"The two Supreme Court decisions (about Scottsboro) set in motion the challenges to various (Jim Crow) laws that occurred later on in the '50s and '60s," he said.

'Goodwill with an agenda'

The case served as a focal point for frustration with the Depression and the injustice of Jim Crow-era racism. Added to the mix was a third ingredient, a holdover from Reconstruction of the previous century -- the perceived intrusion of northerners into Southern affairs.

In the middle of all that, said Anker, the defendants got lost in the tumult.

Four were released in 1937 and sank into obscurity. The remaining five languished in hellish conditions in an Alabama prison while the rest of the nation got swept up in World War II. Four were paroled between 1943 and 1946, and the last one escaped from a prison farm in 1948 after 16 years behind bars.

Only one or two regained a sense of a normal life, say the filmmakers, and that's why the case remains a tragedy.

"Everyone (had) an agenda that concerned the Scottsboro Boys," said Anker. "The Scottsboro Boys were symbols of larger things, and that is a tragedy, because the fact that they were freed couldn't make up for their whole youth lost in jail.

"Scottsboro was a shining moment for the communist party in this country, and I do believe they saved the defendants' lives. There was goodwill, though goodwill with an agenda," said Anker. "That's a very subtle difference, but for us, that's the tragedy -- that these lives were destroyed."

The Trials of the Scottsboro Boys
The Scottsboro Boys
The Scottsboro Boys: Civil Rights Legacy

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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