Scholarly series lecture will examine 1930s race relations and politics

James Goodman, history and creative writing professor at Rutgers University, will lead the second installment of this year’s Dancing in the Dark: America from the Guns of August to the Gathering Storm scholarly series on Sunday, Feb. 21.

Goodman’s lecture, Stories of Scottsboro, will take place at the Wilton Historical Society from 4 to 5:30 p.m., and examine American race relations and politics in the 1930s.

“I am discussing the Scottsboro case, which was a case from the 1930s in which nine young Southern black teenagers were falsely accused of the rape of two white women on a freight train in Alabama,” said Goodman.

The case was “one of most famous court cases involving race relations — and a whole lot more — in the 20th Century,” he said, but it was also “one of the events that helped sort of rekindle the interracial dimension of the struggle for equality.”

“African-Americans had been struggling through and after Reconstruction, but this was one of the cases that got the interracial struggle for equality going again that we would ultimately recognize in the Civil Rights Movement,” he said.

“The young teenagers were pulled off the freight train they were all traveling on and, in two weeks, were indicted, tried and convicted, and eight of the nine were sentenced to death, which led to a whole series of retrials and appeals and Supreme Court decisions that dragged on for many, many years.”

Goodman said the heart of his talk will be the Scottsboro case, which is also the subject of his first book, Stories of Scottsboro.

“I’m going to be talking about the case and my book, which was a narrative history of the case and the controversy surrounding it, in which I tell the story of case and controversy from many different points of views,” he said.

Communist Party

One group that played a role in the controversial Scottsboro case, Goodman said, was the Communist Party, which was involved in the defense of the nine young men.

“The Communist Party, in the 1930s, was at the very forefront of the struggle for racial equality,” he said.

“Even though they considered racial inequality a subset of class inequality, they felt that it was important to combat it because it was something that kept white people and black people divided.”

Goodman said the Communist Party saw race prejudice as “a tool with which the ruling class divided the working class,” and because of this, Goodman said, “they were at the absolute forefront of the struggle for equality.”

When the Communists heard about the Scottsboro trials and charges, Goodman said, they sent representatives down south and “were actually the first ones to start broadcasting the news that nine black teenagers had been sentenced to death for a crime that they didn’t commit.”

Local communism

Goodman said sympathy for the Communist Party grew out of the economic unrest of the Great Depression, when 25% of the population was out of work and “people felt like the capitalist system was failing and wondered whether it would be communism or fascism to replace it.”

“The Communist Party was never a gigantic political party, he said, “but it had a lot of card-carrying members.”

Goodman said Fairfield County would not have been a hotbed of Communism compared to cities like New Haven and Hartford, but there were "certainly" cells of the party in Connecticut.

Western and film noir actor Sterling Hayden, who bought a house in Wilton in 1968, was a member of the Communist Party for about four years.

According to a 1951 article in The Bridgeport Post, Hayden joined the party in June 1946 and left in December 1950 after finding out “there wasn’t anything democratic about it” — something he “had been led to believe while he was working with the Yugoslav underground as a Marine lieutenant during the war.”

Multiple factors

Goodman said there are “about a thousand things fascinating” about the Scottsboro case, but one he finds most fascinating is “how many different factors come into play” and “how many different prisms you need to use to understand it.”

“It was obviously a case about race relations, but it was also a case about antagonism between the North and the South at that particular moment in time,” he said.

“Religious prejudices also come into it because the Communists were associated with Jews, and one of the lawyers in the second set of trials in 1933 was a New York lawyer named Samuel Leibowitz, and he gets attacked for both being a Communist and a Jew, even though he wasn’t a Communist — he was just a lawyer hired by the Communists.”

Goodman said the case also involved gender relations, which, he said, “played a huge role in the case because the two white women, who were the alleged victims, were poor mill workers.”

“The character of lower class women as imagined by all sorts of different players in the controversy comes into it quite significantly — how the women [were] portrayed in the minds of people who thought the rape didn’t happen,” he said.

“They were attacked for being prostitutes, but they were really just poor, young, barely working class, white women, and so gender relations played a gigantic role in understanding the case.”

Goodman said people should attend his scholarly series lecture to learn about the Scottsboro case and how issues that were central to it, such as race, class and historical memory, are “just as pressing today as they were then.”

“A lot of things have changed since 1930s,” he said, “but a lot of things have also stayed the same.”

The second lecture of the Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society’s scholarly series will be moderated by Max Gabrielson and a reception will follow the talk.

The event is free of charge but registration is required and donations are welcomed.

The remaining lectures are:

  • March 13: Jazz Heritages with Bob Riccio at Wilton Library.

  • March 20: WWI and the Future of America with Matthew Warshauer at the Wilton Historical Society.

For more information or to register, visit or call 203-762-6334.