19 March 2021: Edward Weston, Langston Hughes and the Scottsboro Boys Legal Defense Fund

Edward Weston, Langston Hughes, 1932; Gelatin silver print. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; NPG.77.264)

Note: Unless stated otherwise, all photographs illustrated in this post are vintage prints currently owned by Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc. All photographs by Edward Weston © Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

It was the heart of the Depression, jobs were scarce and millions of people were hoboing around America in pursuit of employment. On 25 March 1931, nine black youths, ages 13 to 19, a group of white men, and two white women illegally hopped a freight train bound from Chattanooga to Memphis. On this ill-fated journey, a brawl between the young African Americans and the white train hoppers escalated from minor charges of vagrancy and assault to false but perilous accusations of rape brought by the two white women. Those unfortunate nine came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys and their tortuous struggles with trials, pending executions, and appeals—including two at the United States Supreme Court—erupted into a cause célèbre whose tragic consequences reverberated around the world.[1]

The Scottsboro Boys with Alabama National Guardsmen outside the Scottsboro Jail, March 26, 1931. L to R: Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Olin Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems, Roy Wright and Haywood Patterson. (© Bettmann/CORBIS/Corbis Images)

International outcry over the plight of the Scottsboro Boys engendered countless protests, marches, lobbying, and letter writing campaigns.[2] Embraced by multitudes of ordinary citizens, these endeavors were often sponsored by political, civil rights and labor organizations and promoted by eminent cultural, scientific and legal activists. Poems, plays, films, books, and music interpreted and amplified the tale. Even Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is said to have been inspired by the events. Central to these efforts were legal defense fundraising activities, primarily organized under the aegis of the communist affiliated National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. One such ambitious undertaking—an exhibition and sale of original manuscripts, musical scores and works of art—emerged from Carmel, California in early 1934. Langston Hughes, the eminent African American poet and author was one of its primary organizers. Edward Weston was among its donors and sponsors.

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