Christ in Alabama
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!
Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.
God is His father:
White Master above,
Grant Him your love.
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth.
On the cross of the South.
An interesting fact about Contempo’s 1931 article is that it references the Scottsboro Eight. This random group of African American boys, two of them as young as thirteen, had boarded a train from Tennessee to Alabama and beyond in search of work. Somewhere along this train ride, the locomotive machine was stopped by police and the eight African American boys present were arrested and accused of rape. Mind you, there were dozens of white vagabonds on the same train cars but only the black teens were taken by local law enforcement officers.
These young men served a combined 130 years behind bars on trumped-up and false charges. The jury was ambivalent on one thing only, should these teens receive life imprisonment as the harshest punitive measure or should they be executed by the state by means of an electric chair.
They were all convicted and years later released.
Some of the teens fled to other states once paroled. Others remained behind bars until they were set free and declared not guilty, their innocence restored. One wrote to governor George Wallace while in hiding in New York State, asking if he was still a wanted man by the state of Alabama. The governor in question was a staunch segregationist who later changed his views and adapted to the new social norm, favoring integration only to remain in office. He hesitantly relented and later granted the falsely accused soul his innocence and pardon.
These teenagers turned men turned beasts and monsters by jailers who beat them blue and black, coercing and torturing false confessions out of them; enduring years of hell in Alabama state penitentiaries, alone, desolate, crazed, raped, bruised, stabbed, horrified by daily beatings at the hands of black Americans gone mad by their state dejected existence and by white Americans who knew nothing else but hatred for blacks. Many served their time on death row, often abandoned by guards and left to rot with their innocence intact and insanity ramped up.
It would have been an easier road to the afterlife if these teens had been lynched by one of the thousands of lynch mobs in the South. The fires, the castration, the noose, the buckshot to the chest, the kicks to the kidney and stomach, the bowie knife swallowed by the neck, and ropes tied around one’s ankles and later dragged by a horse, a carriage, a car, or a truck. The police siren blasting in the distance not in hopes of rescue but as a signal that the lynching has begun so gather your kin and come watch. The public spectacle, the journalists, the pamphlets gone out inviting neighboring communities to come and participate, because there will be souvenirs, you know. There’s always something you can take home. A finger, a toe, perhaps. Maybe someone will take home the genitals of the lynched negro, dry it out in the sun, tie it to a lamppost or let it hang from the porch to welcome visitors. A souvenir indeed. Pictures of a hanged corpse, slumped by its own weight, bloodless, are sent to distant family members the same way we send our family members pictures of our trip to Disney World, Universal Studios, or the Eiffel Tower. Look here uncle Bob, another lynched nigger in the books! I hope the kids are doing well. Give them and your wife, Lisa, our warmest regards.
This miserable sight seems more merciful than decades of imprisonment in an Alabama state prison during the terror of the Jim Crow South.
“That thing they had here on May Day what good did it do. Not any at all. I’m still locked up in the cell. Instead of the I.L.D. trying to make it better for me here in jail they are making it harder for me by trying to demand the people to do things. Listen, send me some money. Send me three dollars like I told you in my first letter.” Olen Montgomery, 17 years old at the time of arrest, Letter to his mother after a May Day rally. May 3, 1934.
“My name is Clarence Norris, one of the Scottsboro Boys. I was arrested in Alabama in 1931 and sentenced to the electric chair three times. The governor commuted my sentence to life in prison. I was released on parole twice, once in 1944, and I broke my parole and went back to prison until I got out in 1946. I broke my parole again and I have been free ever since. I want to know if Alabama still wants me.” Clarence Norris, 19 years old at the time of arrest, explaining the reason for his call to Alabama Governor George Wallace, 1973.
“I’d rather die than spend another day in jail for something I didn’t do.” Haywood Patterson, 18 years old at the time of arrest, after getting 75 years, rather than the requested death sentence, January 24, 1936.
“I just got to say I think I am doing well to keep the mind I got now. These people make wise cracks talking about somebody in Alabama to defend us, say I would get out better. They won’t let the New York people come around.” Willie Robertson, 16 years old at the time of arrest, [he said] to a visitor to jail, 1937.
“Please tell all the young mens to try hard and not to go to prison for my sakes.” Charles Weems, 28 years old at the time of his arrest. April 1944.
“Sorry about my last letter — hope it didn’t make you angry. Didn’t mean any harm whatever. only telling you how I felt towards you and what’s more I could not help it.” Eugene Williams, 13 at the time of his arrest. Letter to the International Labor Defense apologizing for a frustrated outburst, December 1936.
“They whipped me and it seemed like they was going to kill me. All the time they kept saying, “now will you tell?” and finally it seemed like I couldn’t stand no more and I said yes. Then I went back into the courtroom and they put me up on the chair in front of the judge and began asking a lot of questions, and I said I had seen Charlie Weems and Clarence Norris with the white girls.” Leroy “Roy” Wright, 13 at the time of his arrest. Roy Wright, to New York Times reporter Raymond Daniell, March 10, 1933.
Conditions Behind Bars for the Scottsboro Eight
Blinded by Fate
“Extremely myopic, and with a cataract in one eye, Montgomery could not see well at all. He was en route to Memphis, looking for work to buy some new eyeglasses, when he was taken from the train and arrested in 1931, at the age of 17. The pair of glasses he had was broken on the day of the arrest and he went for two years without a new pair.”
Of Dreams and Nightmares
“In jail, much of his time was spent on death row, and he was haunted by the executions he could hear from his cell, and began dreaming of his own death.”
The Power of a Pencil and a Bible
“While in prison, Patterson found he regretted skipping out on school. “I held a pencil in my hand, but I couldn’t tap the power that was in it.” But he taught himself to read using a dictionary and a Bible. Patterson was not particularly well liked, by the other Scottsboro defendants ( Clarence Norris swore he would kill Patterson if he had a chance), by other prisoners, or by the guards that ran the prisons. In Atmore Prison, he had to keep perpetually vigilant against physical and sexual assaults. To avoid the latter, Patterson himself became a sexual predator, and kept a “gal-boy.” He lost faith in all things but one: ‘I had faith in my knife. It had saved me many times.’
In February 1941, a guard paid one of Patterson’s friends to kill him. This “friend” stabbed him twenty times, puncturing a lung and sending him to the brink of death. Amazingly, he recovered.”
Shot in the Head
“Patterson was tried and convicted again in January of 1936. Following the swift group conviction days after the incident, Ozie Powell had been imprisoned without a retrial for five years. While being transported from Patterson’s trial back to the Birmingham Jail, he pulled out a pocketknife and slashed Deputy Edgar Blalock in the throat. Sheriff J. Street Sandlin stopped the car, pulled out his gun and shot Powell in the head. Blalock was out of the hospital the same day with ten stitches. Remarkably, Powell also survived.
His mother visited him in the hospital while Powell recovered. ‘I done give up,’ he told her. When asked why, he replied, “Cause I feel like everybody in Alabama is down on me and is mad with me.” He suffered permanent brain damage from the shooting.”
An IQ of 64 and Syphilitic
“Although he made it through to seventh grade in Atlanta, a doctor later measured Roberson’s IQ to be about 64, and his mental age at nine. He could not read or write and had difficulty speaking, and was the butt of many courtroom spectators’ jokes.
Roberson had boarded the Southern Railroad headed to Memphis in search of free medical care for his syphilis and gonorrhea. He was in pain and lying in a car near the back of the train when he was arrested along with the 8 other African American teenagers accused of rape. The cane he used to walk with was thrown away on orders of the deputy that took him into custody.
This painful, syphilitic condition was evidence to defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz that Roberson could not have committed this crime. Judge James Horton agreed that it was unlikely that Roberson could have jumped from car to car as Victoria Price claimed. However, when it was revealed that Ruby Bates had been treated for syphilis herself, Roberson’s venereal disease was cited as evidence of his guilt. Horribly, he was not treated for his condition until 1933.”
Gassed and Airless
“While in prison, Weems was tear gassed in his cell for reading International Labor Defense literature, and he asked his correspondents not to mention any labor actions in Birmingham, Alabama. In October 1937, after some of his fellow defendants were released, Weems was in the prison hospital for tuberculosis. In March of the next year, in a case of mistaken identity, he was stabbed with a knife by the prison mill foreman.
He was paroled in November 1943, and was offered a job in a laundry in Atlanta. He married and settled down into obscurity, keeping his job and his health, although his eyes would persist in bothering him from the tear gas a decade earlier.”
Just Another Black Bastard
“In 1937 Andy Wright was sentenced to 99 years in jail for rape. He wrote a letter to the Scottsboro Defense Committee expressing concern that he and four of the other defendants had had their freedom traded for the four released that year. In Kilby Prison in Montgomery, Alabama, he was assaulted by both guards and prisoners, and spent time in the prison hospital. His continually poor health made it difficult for him to work in the prison industries and further antagonized his tormentors. Wright narrowly escaped an attack when Charley Weems took his shift at the prison mill and received knife wounds intended for Andy.
As bad as the physical punishment was, the psychic punishment may have been worse. By independent accounts, Wright was a good-natured prisoner, but he wrote: ‘A colored convict’s very best behavior is not good enough for these officials here. Every time they open their mouths it is [‘]you black bastard.[‘] When we think we are doing right we be cursed at and kick around and beat like dogs.’
In 1939 he wrote: ‘I am trying all that in my power to be brave but you understand a person can be brave for a certain length of time and then he is a coward down. That the way it is.’ When advised to ‘snap out’ of his depressed state, he wrote: ‘What do you think I am a iron man[?] You all is out there w[h]ere you can do for yourself and get things done and then have a nerve to write and tell me to cheer up.’”
Eleven to One
“At the initial trial, Roy testified that he had seen some of the other defendants rape the two girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Later, he claimed that that testimony had been coerced. His own trial ended in a hung jury, with 11 jurors seeking a death sentence and one voting for life imprisonment.”
It is in this environment in which Langston Hughes pens this didactic poem, comparing the Christ of Calvary with the black man in Alabama.
Langston was aware that should Christ have walked the streets of Alabama, had Christ been on that train that day, crossing from one side of the state to the other, in hopes of healing some and preaching to others, He would have been apprehended and torn to pieces by loaded billy clubs and filled with buckshot.
Christ would have been a nigger in Alabama. Lightskinned, a mulatto, a colored man whose lynching would have been praised by bloodthirsty locals with Bibles in arms. No different than the lynching He suffered in the outskirts of Jerusalem two millennia ago.
Langston decries the hypocrisy of Southern Christianized peoples who worshipped a brown savior but thought him white man. Thought the Jewish rabbi from Palestine was a white man whose sole purpose in existence was to preserve the sanctity and dominance of white supremacy on the North American plains of Turtle Island.
But in Alabama, of all places, Christ was just another nigger.
Southern Christians were more distressed by the color of their Christ than by the presence of the strange fruits hanging from their trees.
News regarding the Scottsboro Eight can be found here.