Goodman (History/Harvard) on the case of the ``Scottsboro Boys,'' nine black Alabama teenagers sentenced to death in 1931 for raping two white women on a freight train. This isn't the Rashomon-like oral history the title suggests, but an exhaustively researched, relentlessly objective account of the case that obsessed—and divided—America. Goodman passes lightly over the state of Alabama's preposterous case to focus on the legal strategies of the International Labor Defense, a Communist organization that assumed the ``boys' '' defense. With brilliant, abrasive New York criminal attorney Samuel Liebowitz as its hired gun, the ILD saw the defendants through numerous trials before both fair and unfair judges (including two trips to the US Supreme Court), along the way forging unlikely alliances with newspaper editors and finding competition from the NAACP. Goodman is impressive both at relating the tedious minutiae of legal battles and at setting the case in the context of the turbulent aftermath of WW I: some of the book's best pages consider the still-bitter legacy of Reconstruction, the African-American romance with Communism, the unabashed anti-Semitism that repeatedly compromised Liebowitz's effectiveness as an advocate, and something, too, called the ``southern rape complex.'' Goodman's portraits of the major players in the case (not only the flashy Liebowitz but the trashy accuser Victoria Price) are deft. But the ``Scottsboro boys'' themselves come to life only in the final pages, when their pathetic letters from prison are quoted at length. Writes one, hauntingly: ``Now I am just like a rabbit in a strange wood and the dogs is after him and no protection.'' For lawyers and history buffs alike, a lucid, penetrating study of a resonant subject.
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