By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
“War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength.” So wrote George Orwell in “1984,” his famous dystopian novel about authoritarianism. The book gave us the term “Orwellian,” describing situations where facts are ignored, truth is turned on its head, and 2+2=5. Now, almost 75 years after its publication, the United States is confronting its own brush with authoritarianism, by prosecuting former President Donald Trump for his attempt to seize power after losing the 2020 election.
One of Trump’s recent federal court filings is truly Orwellian. Trump was trying to delay his trial by almost three years. The filing compares Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, to the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black youths who suffered one of the most notoriously racist judicial persecutions in U.S. history,
On March 25, 1931, a freight train was passing through Alabama en route from Chattanooga to Memphis. Two white women on the train, 23-year-old Victoria Price and 17-year-old Ruby Bates, accused a group of Black youths of gang raping them. Aged 12 to 20, they were arrested and hauled to jail in nearby Scottsboro, Alabama. A mob formed outside the jail, hoping to lynch the accused. Fortunately for the prisoners, both the sheriff and Alabama’s governor were opposed to lynching. The governor ordered the Alabama National Guard to surround the jail.
While protected from the mob, the Scottsboro Boys had no defense against Alabama’s deeply racist justice system. The day after their arrest, all nine were indicted. Two weeks later, eight of the Scottsboro Boys had been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Their ordeal continued for decades. Ruby Bates subsequently recanted her accusation and testified on behalf of the nine. Two appeals made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in remarkable rulings that set the standards for requiring effective counsel and adequate time to prepare a defense, and barring racist exclusion of people of color from juries.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. On August 1st, Trump was indicted on four counts related to his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss – including the charge of conspiracy against rights, originally enacted in 1870 to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan for denying freed Black citizens their right to vote. Special Counsel Smith asked for the trial to begin in January, 2024.
Trump’s lawyers countered with a request to delay his trial until April, 2026. In their court filing, they invoked the Scottsboro Boys’ Supreme Court decision, Powell v. Alabama, in which the Court ruled that the scandalously fast pace of their arrest and sentencing to death, along with the shoddy legal representation they received, were unconstitutional.
In rejecting Trump’s outlandish request, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan said, “many cases are unduly delayed because a defendant lacks adequate representation or cannot properly review discovery because they are detained. That is not the case here.” Retired California Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell called Trump’s failed comparison to the Scottsboro Boys “stunningly stupid” on CNN.
Anthony Michael Kreis, assistant professor of law at Georgia State University, said on the Democracy Now! news hour, “The important lesson from the Scottsboro Boys case is that in Alabama in the early 1930s, you had powers that be who used the criminal justice system in order to reinforce white supremacy — all-white juries, rushed sham trials, lack of criminal process and procedure. That’s just not what’s happening here in Washington, D.C., in the special counsel’s case at all. Donald Trump has been afforded every opportunity to have a robust defense.”
The Scottsboro Boys were victims of racism. Trump, conversely, has long been known for his racism, from discriminating against people of color as prospective tenants in the 1970s, to calling for the execution of the wrongfully-accused Central Park Five in a full-page newspaper ad. Trump refused to apologize or retract his demand, despite their exoneration after spending years in prison. In 2017, he referred to the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville, Virginia, including Klansmen and. neo-Nazis, as “very fine people.”
The Scottsboro Boys were falsely accused of rape, and had their lives ruined. Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and/or rape by no less than 26 women, and has so far avoided any consequences save a recent $5 million civil court verdict finding he had sexually abused writer E. Jean Carroll.
Clarence Norris was the sole living Scottsboro Boy to receive a pardon, in 1976. He died in 1989. In 2013, the remaining Scottsboro Boys received posthumous pardons from the State of Alabama. Their story of justice denied and delayed belongs in every school curriculum, not purged with Black history as is happening in Red states from Arkansas to Florida. The Scottsboro Boys have no place, however, in cynical, Orwellian court filings from criminal defendants like Donald Trump.