A reproduction of linoleum-cut artwork in Scottsboro, Alabama
Unseen for more than half a century, linoleum prints tell a harrowing story through simple illustration

Before, during, and after the early 20th century, thousands of blacks were lynched: hung, burned, shot, tortured, mutilated, their remains parceled off and sold as souvenirs, their pictures available on postcards. These were not isolated, clandestine acts of racial violence, but visible, public, family affairs that reminded blacks of the consequences they faced, should they "step out of line" and challenge the world of Jim Crow.

Yet lynching was not only a Southern phenomena, nor were blacks the only victims of this form of mob violence - Mexicans throughout the Southwest stood falsely accused of the same crimes, with the same devastating results. Today it is difficult to comprehend the scope and scale of such outright terrorism, where bodies were left hanging, visible to passersby across the racial spectrum. To understand this history and its relevance to the present (racial profiling, police brutality, and the death penalty echo the sentencing of "Judge Lynch"), we need to confront America's past.

By Lin Shi Khan & Tony Perez
Edited by Andrew Lee
New York University Press
$18.87, 150 pages
ISBN: 0814751768
In 1931, in Scottsboro, Alabama, nine young black men, ages 13 to 19, were accused of raping two white women; all but one of the men was sentenced to death. The judgment was not uncommon; in most instances, the accused never saw trial. What made this case unique and worth remembering seven decades later was the involvement of the International Labor Defense (ILD) and its legal and political campaign to free the "Scottsboro Boys." The ILD, an offshoot of the Communist Party, was a multiracial group of radicals that successfully fought the conviction in the courts of law and public opinion. Even after one of the accusers admitted she had lied, an all-white jury convicted the defendants; that conviction was overturned only to be repeated by a subsequent trial. Eventually the group accepted a plea bargain that spared their lives, but put three of them behind bars. One of the men remained in prison until 1976.

The ILD, and later the Scottsboro Defense Committee -a tenuous alliance of the Communist Party (whose Southern membership was predominantly African-American), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other supporters - took the particulars of the case far beyond the confines of the Alabama legal system as a means to expose the injustice of the American South. In the era of pecan sheller strikes and auto worker unionization, an emerging, depression-era precursor to the Civil Rights movement saw protests and demonstrations throughout the country and around the world publicize the particulars of the case, resulting in letters of support, poems, songs, and art demanding the release of the Scottsboro defendants. It is within this context of repression and revolution that Lin Shi Khan and Tony Perez created Scottsboro, Alabama: A Story in Linoleum Cuts.

Initially printed in 1935, the outcome of the subsequent trials remained unknown when Khan and Perez completed their volume. Unseen for more than half a century, Scottsboro, Alabama's linoleum prints tell the harrowing story of the Scottsboro case through simple, effective, and easily reproducible illustrations whose message is not weighed down by text; presumably, this was to reach as wide an audience as possible, across populations with varying degrees of literacy and access to published material.

Scottsboro, Alabama begins with slavery. In the first part of their story, Khan and Perez trace the legacy of white supremacy from this defining moment through the Civil War to the (then) present. "The Negroes freed from chattel bonds found they were now wage slaves," whose "misery and starvation" connects them with the "hunger stricken home" of white workers; it is the boss, the "tyrant master," who uses racism to keep them divided. The second chapter begins with the nine young black men hopping a train in the search of work, where they are joined by several white men - and two jobless white girls. Railroad deputies arrest the black men; the bosses, in collusion with the police and media, fan the flames of "race hate" in order to stop "the growing unity of white and black workers." In one panel, an announcer shouts "Lynch 'em, burn 'em, do it the American way, Station U.S.A.," while brandishing an American flag in one hand, a swastika-embossed mic in the other. "But the boss to impress doubtful white workers/gave the lynch job to his lackey the court." Part three, "white and black unite," shows the response to the case: "'Scottsboro' became one of the daily problems/for the working class of all countries."

Khan and Perez conclude with several powerful images of racial unity and worker solidarity - an appeal for its continuation as much as a reminder of its existence. If history wounds it can also heal. To insure that the injustices of the past do not continue to inflict their suffering upon subsequent generations, we must first address, acknowledge, and confront the worst (in this instance, white supremacy supported through legal and extralegal means) as we value and celebrate the best (the global organizing across race and class barriers undertaken on behalf of the Scottsboro defendants), all the while recognizing our own potential to transform the world. •

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.