'Even after all these years, the injustice still stuns. Innocent boys sentenced to die, not for a crime they did not commit, but for a crime that never occurred.'
'I'd sooner die in the electric chair...than go to jail for something I ain't done.'
I've just knitted my way through a fascinating TV programme on the rise of Tamla Motown music and the washout of a UK tour in the mid-1960s by many of the recording artists before Motown really hit the headlines. The Supremes, Little Stevie Wonder (just 13 years old), Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles all squeezed on a tour bus (imagine the singing), did gigs all over the country to virtually empty auditoriums. The programme showed film footage of segregation and race riots back in Alabama and racial prejudice seemed to be the unspoken assumption to the tour's failure in 1960s Britain. However just before they all flew back to the US, Dusty Springfield persuaded Ready Steady Go (remember that?) to do a one hour special for the Tamla artists and they went down a storm, belatedly they hit the big time here in the UK and any tour ever thereafter would be a sell-out.
Normally I'd perhaps have needed that reminder of just how dreadful those years were, but not since my recent read of Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman and published by Picador.
There seems to be a healthy US presence on the Orange Prize longlist this year, both writerly and topically with issues of slavery and racial prejudice dominating, or perhaps that's just because out of the twenty books I've picked up five in a row which fit that remit ?
This yet another book which has languished unread on my shelves for a while, a fictional account of real events in Alabama in 1931, a miscarriage of justice on such an astonishing scale and one that somehow the American civil rights movement must now look on as one of the country's major historical turning points.
'That is how the Scottsboro case began...with a white foot on my black hand.'
Hayward Patterson's recollection of the moment he knew he was in serious trouble as nine black youths are arrested from a train in Scottsboro and accused of raping two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, travelling on the same train. Saved from the lynch mobs and thrown into jail, a semblance of justice is quickly arranged in the form of a trial in front of an all-white jury. The mis-trial, the guilty verdicts and the death sentences come as no surprise but a campaign for the boy's release gathers momentum around the world and the retrials and appeals continue for many years, with Ruby eventually changing her testimony and supporting the boys' release.
This was one of the real page-turners of this year's Orange prize list, keeping me reading into the early hours over several nights, I couldn't put it down but nor could I sleep when I did, so I'd pick it up and read some more when really I should have gone for some soothing Walnut Tree Farm moments from Roger Deakin.
The narrative voice alternates seamlessly between Alice Whittier an ambitious young New York journalist and Ruby Bates, the working class white woman and chief witness for the prosecution and the contrast between the lives and opportunities afforded these two women offers unique and differing insights on the situation as it unfolds. Alice's priviliges in life pave her way, Ruby has had none and must fight for her daily existence and meanwhile the trial town of Decatur smoulders in the background like a volcano just about ready to blow,
'the mounting tension had stripped nerves raw and set tempers on hair triggers.'
and as defending lawyer, Sam Leibowitz steps up to address the jury for the first time I sensed the futility of the cause in his misplaced optimism,
'I have never known a bad jury, gentlemen. I have never encountered a wilfully malicious one. I do not expect to in the fine state of Alabama.'
The tension drips into the book with great regularity and occasionally via the briefest of foretellings of an outcome. Effectively intentional spoilers but so brief, just a glancing sentence that all you can think is, well I know that's going to happen but how I wish it wouldn't, and this becomes a surprisingly fulfilling way to read a book.
This is a book to remind, a book to ensure we never forget and the shame does not rest with Alabama alone, if this Orange long list does nothing else it does rightly spread culpability worldwide with its broad spectrum of racial oppression and inequality.Having now read Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo we have much shame to be reminded of here in the UK too, but Scottsboro one hugely powerful book and like the 2004 Orange Prize winner, Andrea Levy's Small Island, one with that ability to make you gasp inwardly at the sheer ridiculousness of racial prejudice.
'The sun poured in the windows hard and bright, and made everything white and whiter, and him, surrounded by all those faces, blacker. The colour coated him like a coat of thick poisonous paint, strangling his throat, constricting his lungs, breaking his heart.'