Companion shares lesson in civil rights history

On a voyage from New York to Rio, I spent 10 days in the company of Samuel Leibowitz, a 73-year-old trial lawyer. At that time, I did not know he sat on the New York Supreme Court and was the greatest trial lawyer of the century.

The Leibowitz family, of Romanian Jewish ancestry, immigrated to the United States in 1897 when Samuel was 4. After graduating from Cornell Law School, he became a trial lawyer.

Sam, as he liked to be called, was short, bald, an inveterate cigar smoker who possessed a resonant voice, strong and deep of tone. Day after day, we walked the decks as he recounted the stories of his trials and the colorful characters he defended. It was from him I first heard of the Scottsboro Boys.

As an Irishman and a Jew, we had much in common: a world presence out of proportion to our size, consummate storytellers, a long history of oppression, strong family ties, empathy for the downtrodden, easy humor, speech peppered with the pithy phrase, shared Hebrew Scriptures and an ancient faith. The meeting of our eyes was enough to grasp the bond we shared.

He mentioned the sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, was the son of the chief rabbi of Ireland who grew up and was educated in Dublin. Robert Briscoe, he noted with obvious pride, served as mayor of Dublin.

On March 25, 1931, nine black youth, ages 12 to 19, hoboed a freight train at Chattanooga, Tennessee, bound for Memphis, where they hoped to find work. Aboard the train, an altercation broke out with a group of white youth. The white youth were ejected from the train. The two remaining white girls reported, albeit falsely, that they had been raped by the black youth. The station official phoned ahead, and at Paint Rock, Alabama, a posse arrested the nine, taking them to jail at Scottsboro, Alabama, the Jackson County seat.

Sam, then 38, journeyed from New York to defend the hapless, mostly illiterate boys without ever accepting a penny in return. He was taunted and vilified as a New York Jew. He received death threats, and the KKK was always a menace in the shadows. He persevered until justice was done.

A series of trials was conducted between 1931 and 1937. At the first trial, all nine were convicted and initially sentenced to death by a white jury. For this trial 10,000 hostile people showed up, ready to lynch if the opportunity arose, and so, the National Guard was called in to protect the prisoners. It was the first time in American judicial history that so many were condemned to death at the same time.

An execution date was set for July 10, 1931, only four months after their conviction. A new trial was called for shortly before their execution. The 12-year-old was dismissed, charges were dropped against four others, three were paroled later, one escaped, the last left jail in 1950, and only one lived to be pardoned, ironically, by Gov. George Wallace.

During the proceedings both girls, who accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape, testified. One later recanted her story in the witness box. The other never changed her story until her death in 1982.

In November 2010, I made a long-awaited pilgrimage tracing the journey of the Scottsboro Boys from Chattanooga through Paint Rock to Scottsboro. There I met Sheila Washington, a bright, warm woman, who, after 17 years and much resistance, opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum in 2010. The museum is housed, appropriately, in the 132-year-old Joyce Chapel United Methodist Church, the oldest standing African-American church in the county.

Sheila was delighted to hear that I had known Samuel Leibowitz. She called his 84-year-old daughter, now living in California, to inform her. She told Sheila that among her father’s papers there was a photograph taken with a priest aboard ship. Finally, he was identified. Sheila asked if I would write a short account of my meeting with Sam and how he told me about the Scottsboro Boys.

Due to the Scottsboro trials and the brilliance of a great lawyer, two landmark decisions were handed down.

The defendants were denied the right to effective legal counsel.

The defendants had not received equal protection under the law because Jackson County juror rolls excluded African Americans.

Because of these rulings, Scottsboro, strange as it may seem, marked a profound change in civil rights and became the birthplace and epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, Samuel Leibowitz would dance on deck knowing an African American had become president and an African-American family occupied the White House. African Americans, and all of us, owe Samuel Leibowitz our gratitude for paving somethng of the pathway that led to greater freedom for all Americans.

At Rio we embraced and parted. I was privileged to have had the company of the century’s greatest trial lawyer, who was also a righteous man.

Judge Leibowitz died in 1978. The nine Scottsboro Boys often expressed their gratitude and affection for the defender in a hostile and dangerous world. It is important for all of us, as we celebrate Black History Month, not to forget the generous advocate for the Scottsboro Boys.

I, also, fondly remember him.

Msgr. Ciaran P. O’Mearain is the retired pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Gibbsboro.

Categories: Latest News

About Author