Biography of Samuel Leibowitz: “The Scottsboro Trial”

Samuel Leibowitz was a very prominent lawyer in the 1930’s, and one of America’s best, winning 77 out of 78 murder cases in fifteen years; the 78th was a result of a hung jury, and later becoming a supreme-court justice.1 One of Leibowitz’s greatest achievements as a criminal defense attorney was the Scottsboro trial. The Scottsboro trial was a very important case in United States history, in that it brought national attention to the issue of the situation of African-Americans in the early 20th century. James Goodman, a renowned historian, stated, “Scottsboro started a new movement that was one of the sparks that rekindled the equality movement.

Samuel, son of Isaac and Bina Lebeau, was born on August 14th 1893 in Romania.3 The Lebeaus lived in the town of Jassy that was located on the Northern Moldavian region of Romania.4 Even though the Lebeaus were doing fairly well financially, they were not doing well civilly. Being Jews, the Lebeaus had few civil rights, except for the rights to join the military and the right to pay heavy taxes.5 After the Anti-Semitic league (a league that would spread anti-Semitic propaganda, organized anti-Semitic demonstrations, and provoke riots) was sanctioned in Romania, the Lebeaus were concentrating with the pros and cons of emigrating to America; America seemed to be a better option, thus the Lebeaus emigrated in 1897.6 After arriving to America, a neighbor recommended that Isaac Lebeau Should Americanize his last name in order to prosper even further as a business man, thus he changed it to Leibowitz.7 As Sam had gotten older, while he was attending high school, he had wanted to grow up to be a civil engineer. 8 On the other hand, Sam’s father Isaac had wanted Sam to pick a profession in which Sam could make a name for himself.9 Sam obeyed, and in the spring of 1911, he applied to the college of law of Cornell University.10 In Cornell, Sam was surprised by his newfound interest in History, and English literature; case law and legal reasoning also enthralled him.11 Leibowitz was also the first Jew to ever be admitted membership to the drama club, he made the varsity debating team, and he was elected president of the Cornell congress.12 All of those skills that he had attained would be used in the courtroom.

After Samuel had graduated from Cornell, and passed his BAR exams (ranking number one out of 600 who have been tested), he began work in a law office as a law clerk.13 Failing to receive a raise of five dollars on grounds that “He wasn’t worth it,” Samuel quit his job, and began work at a different law firm now receiving three times the pay that he was initially receiving at the Cohen Brothers Law Firm; he was receiving fifteen dollars salery.14 After a few months of working at Cohen Brothers, Samuel felt comfortable and confident enough to ask for a dollar per week raise; the head of the firm counter offered him with fifty cents. The end result was that Samuel resigned on the spot.15 After a month of being unemployed, Samuel was recommended a job opening for a prominent Brooklyn barrister named Micheal F. McGoldrick.16 Distinguishing Samuel’s talent, McGoldrick hired him right away with a salary of thirty-five dollars.17

Samuel wanted to do more than just draft wills, and prepare briefs; he wanted to use his skill in the courtroom. In February of 1919, Leibowitz asked his boss permission to go to the kings County Judge for an interview to be able to work on a few cases; he told the judge that he was willing to work for nothing, and that he wanted to be assigned to poor and needy defendants. 18 Through his unorthodox tactics, he prevailed in all of his defense cases.

In May of 1919, Leibowitz said farewell to everyone at McGoldrick’s and opened up his own office: Samuel S. Leibowitz Attorney-at-law.19 Then in 1921, Leibowitz partnered up with Jacob Sheintag, a brother of a New York state Supreme Court justice.20 Leibowitz gained fame in no time. From defending petty thieves and pick-pocketers, Leibowitz began to defend gangsters, murderers, rapists, and sue large companies like Coca-Cola.21 Somewhere between Chattanooga and Stevenson, Alabama on a freight train on March 25th, 1931 a white man stepped on a black man’s hand; that man was 18-year-old Haywood Patterson.22 In Haywood Patterson’s (one of the nine “Scottsboro Boys”) recollection of the whole Scottsboro case, he stated: “The trouble began when three or four white boys crossed over the oil tanker that four of us colored fellows from Chattanooga were in. One of the white boys, he stepped on my hand and liked to have knocked me off the train. I didn’t say anything then, but the same guy, he brushed by me again and like to have pushed me off the car. I caught hold of the side of the tanker to keep from falling off. I made a complaint about it and the white boy talked back—mean, serious, white folks Southern talk. That is how the Scottsboro case began… with a white foot on my black hand.”23

Shortly after that, a brawl broke out between the whites and the blacks on the freight train because the whites were attempting to kick off all of the blacks from the train. The end result was that the blacks won the fight and managed to throw off all of the whites.24 Forty miles down the track from where the whites were beaten then thrown off of the train, the train stopped in the nearby town of Paint Rock, Alabama where it was surrounded by armed, and angry whites who heard what the blacks on board the train had done; they were itching to lynch the black men.25 When the whites at Paint Rock emptied out the train, they found two pale, young white women wearing men’s overalls who claimed to have been brutally raped by the blacks on the train; those women were Ruby bates, aged seven-teen, and Victoria price aged twenty-one.26 Ruby Bates and Victoria Price came from the cotton center in Huntsville, Tennessee where they worked in the textile mills.27 Since wages were so low, they were forced to live in the black neighborhoods of Huntsville, where they occasionally traded sex with both blacks and whites for food and clothes.28 At age twenty-one, Victoria Price was twice married, and jailed for adultery and vagrancy charges. 29

The nine black boys were loaded on a truck to be jailed in the nearby town of Scottsboro. On Monday April 6th 1931 at Scottsboro Court house, large crowds of whites were drawn to the building because of headlines like “The most unspeakable crime in history of Alabama.”30 At the time, it was common belief that black men were almost dying to get their hands on white women, so it was practically accepted as a fact that the two women were raped despite their previous life styles. Between 1880-1940, five thousand black men were lynched for accusations of sexually harassing white woman. 31As the trial began, Victoria price took the stand. She said that there were six black men to her and three to Bates:

“…One was holding my legs, and another had a knife to my throat while another ravished me… six of them had intercourse with me.”32 Unable to get a lawyer, the Scottsboro boys were set up to be defended by a real estate attorney who was hired for sixty dollars.33 The Boys only had one twenty minute meeting with the lawyer, in which he urged the boys to plead guilty.34 The trial lasted three days and all nine boys had been sentenced to be put to death by the electric chair, and nobody came to aid except the communist party of America and the NAACP.35 The communists were trying to appeal to southern blacks to join their party and embrace Marxism, and the Scottsboro trial seemed like an ideal magnet to attract the southern blacks.36 Three weeks after the trial, the communist party launched massive demonstrations worldwide for the Scottsboro boys, and along with the communist party, the NAACP stood up for the nine convicted blacks, but their reasons were more genuine.37 The ILD (international-labor defense), an organization controlled by the Communist party, sent out lawyers to Kilby jail where the nine convicted Scottsboro boys were locked up to help the boys to help them.38 The ILD also urged whites to show support by sending cigarettes, and letters to the boys.39 This somewhat confused the boys because here they were in Alabama being convicted and sentenced to death by racist whites. After getting all of these letters from whites, Patterson stated: “Mail from white people was confusing to me. All my life I was untrusting of them. Now their presents and kind words was more light than we got through the bars of the windows” 40 On November of 1932 the Communists protested on the steps of the capital, and inside lawyers were speaking with the Supreme Court about the ruling of the Scottsboro trial, the end result was a 7:2 Supreme Court Justice ruling that the trial was violating the civil right of the nine boys because their legal defense was very inadequate. 41Alabama’s response to the ruling was to re-try and convict the boys.42

In January of 1933 Joseph Brodsky of the ILD asked the New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz to defend the Scottsboro boys as the chief defense attorney.43 Leibowitz accepted. The second trial was moved to Decatur, Alabama; the trial consisted of Thomas Knightly (a very skilled and experienced lawyer who was prosecuting the nine boys) an all white southern jury.44

Victoria Price was put on the stand and began telling her story about how she was raped. In response to her story, Leibowitz took out a replica of the train and began to ask Price simple questions about her location on the train during the rape.45 Price simply answered by saying she did not know, or she did not remember. This tactic that Leibowitz used made Price’s story seem inconsistent.46 Now Samuel came to the most important part of Price’s recital of the story: Victoria Price claimed that she had suffered many injuries during the rape that followed with bleeding. She said that the was hit with the butt-end of a gun on her head, which was then followed by six successful, brutal penetrations that had torn her private area, and that she had a few cuts on her back because of the contact with the floor while six sex-crazed black men were ravishing her.47 Price also failed to show the semen-splattered clothes that she spoke about, and excused it by saying that she cleaned it before she arrived at Scottsboro.48 Leibowitz was able to bring out the many contradictions in Prices story. Samuel was able to find a witness to explain the semen found in Price’s and Bate’s female orifices, Lester Carter.49 When Lester Carter took the stand, he said that he, a man named Giley, Ruby Bates, and Victoria Price engaged in sexual intercourse the night before the alleged rape.50 Price denied the validity of Carter’s testimony by saying that Ruby Bates and she were staying by a woman by the name of Mrs. Callie Brochie’s house that night in Chattanooga.51 On top of being unable to describe Brochie’s boarding house, Leibowitz found out that Brochie did not exist, and was a fictional character from a newspaper story.52

After showing the entire court that Mrs. Broochie did not exist in Chattanooga, Knight, Price’s attorney, brought out his best witness: Dr. R. R. Bridges, who was one of the two physicians that examined Price, and Bates after an hour and a half after the alleged rape.53 His purpose was to prove that there was indeed sexual activity with Price. Leibowitz was able to turn this prosecuting witness into a witness for the defendants by getting him to explain why Price and Bates could not have been raped.54 Leibowitz also was able to get Ruby Bates to testify and tell the jury that her first testimony with Price was made up.55 Leibowitz found a fault in the trial: the jury. The jury was all white, so Leibowitz decided to take that issue with one of the Scottsboro boys, Clarence Norris, to the Supreme Court.56 With the evidence that Leibowitz provided, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama deliberately left out blacks in the jury, and because of that a new verdict arose.57

Grober Hall lobbied for an end of the Scottsboro persecution, and the ILD said the Leibowitz would have to let the case go to some one else.58 Then in July of 1937, 4 boys were released. Two of the boys were thirteen years old, one nearly blind, and one frail from syphilis.59 As time went by, the affair came to an end and in 1943, two more boys were released, then three years later another.60 The last man remaining locked up was Haywood Patterson who eventually escaped and ran away in 1948.61

Leibowitz, Samuel. The Defender
Prentice Hall, 1981
Patterson, Haywood. Scottsboro boy
Doubleday, 1950
Goodman, James E. Stories of Scottsboro
Vintage Books, 1995
Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro A tragedy of the American South
LSU Press, 1979
Norris, Clarence, and Sybil D. Washington. The Last of The Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography
Putnam, 1979
Linder, Douglas O. Famous American trials “The Scottsboro Boys” Trials 1931-1937
University of Missouri Kansas-City, 1999
Scottsboro an American tragedy
PBS, 1999-2000
Samels, Mark. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
WGBH Educational Foundation, 2001