Friday, December 13, 2019

Q&A with Larry Dane Brimner

Larry Dane Brimner is the author of a new book for young adults, Accused!: The Trials of the Scottsboro Boys: Lies, Prejudice, and the Fourteenth Amendment. His many other books include Twelve Days in May and Blacklisted!. He lives in San Diego and Tucson.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the case of the Scottsboro Boys--in 1930s-era Alabama--in your new book for young adults?

A: I focused on the Scottsboro Boys because it was a horrible miscarriage of justice, if indeed the word justice can be associated with any of the trials these young men faced.

Many of my nonfiction books have focused on America behaving badly and not living up to the ideals set forth in the founding documents.

Many of the white citizens of Alabama were quite proud that the nine youths--two only 13 years of age--who had been falsely accused of rape by two white women were tried in a court of law instead of by lynch mob.

Yet they were tried by prejudiced, all-white juries, judges who were convinced of their guilt even before any evidence had been presented, and newspaper accounts that touted the legitimacy of the rushed trials and the obvious guilt of the accused.

Why were they obviously guilty? They were black in a society where whites made up the rules. One of the accused youths, 18-year-old Haywood Patterson, summed it up by saying, "All that spoke for me on that witness stand was my black skin--which didn't do so good."
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: Fortunately, a couple of the Scottsboro Boys left behind their autobiographies.

While autobiographies generally are not useful for factual details--because who is going to write an account of their life that makes them look bad--they are wonderful sources for quotes and also reveal the attitudes and prejudices, the likes and dislikes of the persons a writer is writing about. I read these with care, dismay, and shock.

These were my foundation before tackling the newspapers of the day, especially those newspapers local to Scottsboro and the surrounding areas of northern Alabama and southern Tennessee. (More dismay and shock.)

Next I traveled to Scottsboro to visit the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and also to Decatur, Alabama, where some of the trials were held, to visit the Morgan County Archives.

I had learned through archivist friends that the Morgan County Archives had the trial transcripts in its collection, as well as photographic images of the trials. the national guardsmen sent to protect the youths, and the two accusers. Secondary sources filled in the gaps.

I think what surprised me was the speed at which the trials were conducted.

It was clear from the outset that the original judge assumed the young men's guilt before a single piece of evidence had been presented and the third judge thought the state had wasted too much time and money trying them. This judge simply wanted to be done with the cases and wouldn't allow the defense to present its evidence.

I was also surprised by the outright hostility and suspicion by many citizens of Alabama and the press against the defense attorney--who was Jewish and a New Yorker, two strikes against an acquittal. He was as much on trial as were the youths.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from the Southern attitude that a white woman's word was not to be questioned. It alone was enough to convict these young black men, despite medical evidence that proved no rape had taken place.

One judge went so far as to say that no corroborating evidence was necessary for conviction, only the word of one white female accuser. (The other accuser had recanted.)

Q: Given the current focus on issues of race, what do you see as the legacy today from this case?

A: The actual legacy of the trials of the Scottsboro Boys lay in two Supreme Court rulings that came out of those trials: 1) a guarantee of a jury before one's peers and 2) the right to adequately prepared legal counsel.

We also learn from this case that history repeats itself again and again. In the 1980s, the Central Park Five were accused and convicted of the beating and rape of a white woman after they had been questioned for hours upon hours and threatened by police.

Donald Trump even jumped on the band wagon, taking out ads in newspapers calling for their executions, and even after their innocence had been proven, he refused to acknowledge it--citing their confessions (which had been coerced).

If the trials of the Scottsboro Boys and Central Park Five have another legacy, it is to examine the facts of a case before jumping to a conclusion based on race or personal prejudice, and to make sure legal procedures are followed from initial investigations of a crime, to the gathering of evidence, to the arrests of suspects, to the court proceedings.

Too often in our legal system, innocent people have been incarcerated, or worse, not because of guilt, but because of racial or ethnic prejudice by the ruling culture. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers will come to realize the miscarriage of justice that was heaped upon the Scottsboro Boys and work to make certain that such injustices don't happen again. Even one wrongly convicted individual is one too many. White privilege is real, and needs exposing in all its forms.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As a gentleman of a certain age, I think I'm longing to work on retirement next, but I keep finding things I want to know more about.

Instead of telling you what I am or am not working on now, which may or may not be anything at all, let me tell you what the next Brimner books to be published are.

In 2020 and 2021, two nonfiction books will be released by Calkins Creek. One is called Finding a Way Home: Mildred and Richard Loving and the Fight for Marriage Equality and the other is Prejudice, Segregation, and Roberto Alvarez, about the first successfully fought school desegregation case in the U.S.

In the fiction arena, Scholastic will, in 2021, release my Racing Ace series, three early-readers about a female character named Ace who has spunk, know-how, and an attitude that she can do anything males can do. And she does. (With delightful illustrations by Kaylani Juanita.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nope. Can't think of anything at all. But like I said, retirement is looking very attractive.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Larry Dane Brimner.

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