Bates, Ruby (1913–1976)
Bates, Ruby (1913–1976)
Key American participant in the notorious Scottsboro case. Name variations: Ruby Schut. Born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1913; died in Yakima, Washington, on October 27, 1976; had two brothers; married Elmer Schut.
Perhaps more than any other single event in the 1930s, the Scottsboro case of Alabama made clear to the American public the full extent of racial injustice in those Southern states whose legal and social systems were based on de jure segregation. Two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, accused nine "black boys" ranging in age from 13 to 21 of raping both of them while the "boys" were traveling as hoboes in March 1931 on the Chattanooga-to-Huntsville freight train. Tried without adequate legal counsel, all nine were convicted of rape on the basis of shaky testimony by Price and Bates. The Scottsboro case became a national controversy, as independent liberals, the American Communist Party, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) regarded the convictions as an outrageous miscarriage of justice. The sentencing exacerbated the issue, when all but one received death sentences.
Behind the scenes, the defenders of the Scottsboro boys were often at odds. Their legal defense was in the hands of a Communist-affiliated organization, the International Labor Defense, which viewed the case not simply as a question of justice for nine individuals but as a symbol of racial and class injustice in a capitalist society. The NAACP suspected that the Communists were more interested in the defendants' propaganda value as "victims of the system," than their fate as individuals. Applying mass pressure to the Alabama political and judicial system, individual liberals and radicals as well as their organizations bombarded officials, including the governor, with telegrams, postcards and letters demanding justice, including a retrial of all the defendants.
Ruby Bates, in a move that blew up the case, then changed her testimony. Her motives for the dramatic change were apparently mixed. She was annoyed because the other witness, Victoria Price, had pushed her out of the limelight. But the element of conscience was also present, for as she wrote in a letter to a boyfriend, "i wish those negroes are not burnt on account of me." Whatever her reasons, it took considerable courage for her to change her testimony in a racially-charged case in the deep South of the 1930s. Bates found herself vilified, being accused by many of the local elites that she had been bribed by the defense team, which as far as they were concerned was comprised mostly of Jewish Communists who had no right to be in the South. After her testimony, Ruby was taken from the courtroom and hidden by several National Guardsmen.
Recognizing Bates' publicity value, the leftist defenders of the Scottsboro boys took her on a tour of New York and Washington, D.C. At New York's St. Nicholas Arena, she spoke as a poor white woman before a crowd of over 5,000, saying that her initial false story of rape had been the result of having been "excited and frightened by the ruling class of white people." Back in Alabama, hostility toward Bates increased. The Huntsville Times noted with sarcasm that she had become "Harlem's darling" and called on the state attorney general to institute perjury proceedings against the "former Huntsville gutter snipe."
After a brief period as a speaker for the International Labor Defense, she vanished into obscurity despite continuing attempts by the Alabama attorney general's office to depict her as a clever liar who had been rewarded by the Communists with a luxurious New York penthouse for "going red." For a while, she worked in a spinning factory in upstate New York.
As for the Scottsboro boys, their attorneys agreed to an unusual plea bargain in 1937 whereby four of them were released while the other five remained in prison. The last of them was not to be released until 1950. Ruby Bates, who had married and taken her husband's name of Schut, died in Yakima, Washington, on October 27, 1976. Two days before her death, Clarence Norris, a resident of New York City and the last of the nine defendants known to be still alive, received a full pardon from the state of Alabama.
Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Rev. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Goodman, James E. Stories of Scottsboro. NY: Pantheon Books, 1994.
Herndon, Angelo. The Scottsboro Boys: Four Freed! Five To Go! NY: Workers Library Publishers, 1937.
Kelley, Robin D.G. "Scottsboro Case," in Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Left. NY: Garland, 1990, pp. 684–686.
Norris, Clarence. The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography. NY: Putnam, 1979.
"Ruby Schut, 63, Is Dead; Said She Was Involved In 'Scottsboro Boys' Case," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1976, p. 1477.
Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. NY: Discus Books, 1971.
John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia