It Might Have Happened in Alabama
A One Act Play Based on the Scottsboro Trial
By S. RALPH HARLOW
Time: Good Friday. 1933.
Place: The entire act takes place in the study of the judge.
(As the curtain rises the judge is seen sitting before an open fire in his study. From a radio, in the corner of the room, the majestic music of The Crucifixion is flooding the air. The music grows fainter and the voice of the announcer breaks in.)
Announcer: This is station NBC broadcasting from Birmingham. The Dixie Players will now present a Good Friday play. The title of this play is The Tragedy of Pilate. The cast is made up of young people from the Christian Endeavor Societies of the churches of Decatur County.
Another voice: Friends of the radio audience. Before we present this Good Friday play we are asking Rev. Dr.Goodman, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church to offer a word of prayer.
Dr. Goodman: Let us all unite in prayer. Oh Merciful God, we bow in utter humility before Thee on this holy day. For us and for our sins Thy Son did offer up his life. Make us, we pray Thee, worthy of so great a sacrifice. Help us to be more loving, more kind, because of his great love and suffering for us, When was such mercy shown poor sinners as was shown upon his cross? When did bigotry and hatred seem more ugly than when they cried out for the blood of the Son of God? Grant that we may keep ourselves unspotted from the sins that nailed Jesus to the cross. We rejoice that we have been called to follow Him whom not having seen we have loved.
Grant that the message of these scenes, and the words of these young people may revive in us a sense of high loyalty to the purpose for which Christ died. Amen and amen.
THE PLAY BEGINS
(The roar of a mob is heard and the clank of Roman swords. Above the cries of the mob rises the clear, strong voice of Pilate.)
Pilate: Bring in the prisoner, and tell that mob that if they show any inclination to take the law into their own hands I’ll order the soldiers to run them through with their short-swords. I’m in command here.
(The judge starts, rises from his seat and faces the radio.)
Pilate: I know that mob, I know full well their narrow prejudice, their flaming bigotry. For this they have delivered up this man to death. I know full well that he is innocent. Have I not had him here before me? Did I not send him to Herod. I did not want this case. It has been thrust upon me. I seek justice. Have I not pledged my word to uphold the law, to support justice through the courts? Oh, what fate is mine that I should come on such a day as this. But I am a Roman and I must see this matter out.
(The judge walks quickly to the radio and tunes out.)
The Judge: (Speaking to himself with tense voice) And must I have this added to my tortured mind? Have I not faced enough these days that this should be brought upon me? Pilate! Ah Pilate, I never knew what you endured until this bitter hour came upon me. What am I saying? These illiterate nigger boys are not the Christ. Had I stood in Pilate’s place they could have torn me limb from limb ere I would give my Lord to that mob and to its frenzied will.
(Restlessly he opens the Bible. Reads at random and starts back, dropping the book on the table and raising his hands before his face.)
The Judge: (In great agony) Oh, not those words, not those today.
(Cries out the words as though driven by some inner force) “Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these my brethren ye did it unto me.”
Oh Christ, not unto Thee, not unto Thee. Have I not sought justice! Did I not plead with that jury to put away their prejudice, their narrow thoughts on race and color? Did I not beg of them to ignore the bitter, bigoted attack of that prosecutor? The boy, sitting there with that rabbit’s foot in one hand, a horse-shoe in the other, he is not the brother of the Christ. He did not mean such as that nigger when He said “the least of these my brethren.” Or did He?Cover scottsboro frst
I sent the enclosed to —
— of the Christian —He wrote that it was “tremendous” but did not think that I was “fair” to the Judge. I feel that I have been more than fair. A lot of us white people have a psychology which is much like that of backers of a “small college” when it plays a “big college.” We don’t expect to “win” but if any one on our team makes a touchdown we go wild. In the Williams gym is a huge cup, called the Yale cup. It is the largest cup in the trophy room. One thinks that it must have been won in some great victory. On the cup are the figures: Yale 27; Williams, 51. It seems that in a certain game a loyal Williams’ alumnus promised the team a huge cup if they would “score” on Yale. Well they did “score”. So, when a Southern white is involved, we shout to high heaven if he will only “score”; we never expect him to “win the game.” It seems to me that Judge Horton did “score” but that he hardly should be given credit for any great victory, either in the realm of law or of ethics, to say nothing of any “moral victory.” At least he should have broken in several times and denounced the tirades delivered before his bench in this trial; on two counts he could have called the trial off and his words of final praise to the jury after their wretched verdict washed out for me all he did to preserve order in the court room, order at the point of sharp steel.
While the tragic events of the Passion Week in the Decatur Court Room are in the background, I do not limit the act to any one judge or any one trial. Any court in any county of Alabama, where Negro boys might be on trial for their lives on such charges, would be the basis for such a scene. It is a system, rather than any one individual I have in mind. All we like sheep have gone astray.
(Walks with nervous steps to the radio and tunes in again. A woman’s voice comes over the air)
Woman’s Voice: I tell ye, have nothing to do with that man. Oh Pilate, I have suffered much because of him this night in a dream.
(The radio fades away for a few moments. A knock is heard at the door of the study. A sweet-faced woman is standing there. She is the judge’s wife.)
The Judge’s Wife: My dear I know how you must be suffering. Believe me when I say that I have suffered much in this case. In memory I have dreamed again of the days of our courtship. Do you remember how you told me of your purpose to stand for justice and equality for all before the courts of the nation? May I share with you part of a letter from my college chum in New York. I pray that somehow you may find the light in this dark hour. Helen’s letter may help you.
The Judge: Yes, Mary, read on.
The Judge’s Wife: (reading) “We have rejoiced, Mary, as we have followed in the Times the story of your husband’s strong and fine words in this trial. At a distance it is probably easier for us to see this in its true light than for you who are in the midst of the emotion which I know abounds there in Alabama. Your husband and the chief justice stand out as light in the midst of darkness in this case. Having spent those two winters with you in your home I know something of the difficulty you and he must face. What great courage it takes today to stand for justice there in Alabama. For surely none of us who have followed this case has any doubt but that these boys are innocent of the crime with which they have been charged. It was wonderful that Dr. Fosdick was able to get that poor girl to go back and tell the truth. It must have taken great courage for her to stand in that court-room and tell that crowded room that her first story was a lie and that the case was a frame- up. And if it has been possible for a girl such as she is known to be to take such a stand, surely intelligent and Christian men and women in the state will not fear to do as much for justice and for mercy. We are looking to the educated leadership of the South to rise in protest against a terrible and cruel tragedy. What I am wondering is what the judge will do if the jury, farmers and small-townsmen as the paper reports them to be, under the sway of a prejudiced prosecutor, bring in a verdict of guilty. Can he possibly be a party to sending to death a boy whom he must know has been delivered up because of prejudice and race hatred? Surely he cannot wash his hands as Pilate—’
The Judge: (raises his hand, and, with a great cry, calls) Stop. I cannot hear more. Leave me alone. Oh God, why must I hear this?
(His wife crosses to his side, kisses him tenderly and leaves the toom. The radio voices grow louder once more. Pilate is speaking.)
Pilate: Behold the man. I hare had him scourged, look on his face. Can you not see the blood, do not the thorns move you! Shall I release him?
(The cries of a mob grow more insistent.)
Mob: Away with him, crucify him.
(One strong voice rises above the rest.)
Voice: Pilate, if ye do not grant us our desire ye shall lose thy post.
(The judge quickly tunes off the radio and walks back and forth with bowed head.)
The Judge: (Speaking rapidly to himself) The very words, the very words. Let this nigger go and you’ll lose your judgeship and all hope of future leadership in this State. Side with these damn yankees and let that Jew money influence you and you’ll be done for.
Strange, strange, then Jewish leaders were crying for blood, now a Jew stands in my court and pleads with us Christians for mercy and for justice to the oppressed. What is this am saying? Downtrodden! What accusation do I bring against my proud State. Oh Alabama, what may I do to preserve your fair name from the scorn of thinking men? Are you grown blind and deaf to the rising protest of all just men everywhere outside the limits where race prejudice holds men in its cruel sway?
(Once more he turns to the radio and tunes in as though unable to evade its message. Pilate is speaking.)
Pilate: Bring water. I at least, will have nothing to do with the blood of this innocent man. See ye to it. (A great roar of exultation and frenzy is heard from the mob demanding Jesus’ life.)
(The sound of hands being washed in water comes clearly into the room. A voice, strange and emotional rings out.)
Pilate: Take him now and crucify him. I am free of his blood. (A shout of triumph goes up front the mob.)
(Again the radio fades away as the judge paces the floor back and forth, back and forth.)
The Judge: God what a place to be in on such a day as this. I did not want this trial. I begged Judge Herriod to take it in his county, but he sent the case back to me. We had not been good friends, he and I. He has even called me “nigger lover” because of my stand for justice irrespective of race or color. But his letter shows that he is reconciled. I wonder, did he know in what a strait I would be placed, and does he rejoice that even he does not have to carry this load of responsibility?
The Judge: (Begins talking to himself again) Those wounds, those scars made by the thorns and the scourging. Why, oh why do those other wounds rise before my eyes? Was it necessary for the soldiers to prod that boy with their bayonets? I saw the blood through his shirt; the lines of pain around the corners of his mouth, the sweat of agony on his brow, and the dull terror in his eyes. There he sat, trusting to a rabbit’s foot and a horseshoe to bring him justice and some luck. No strong abiding sense of God for him. He is no Christ, and yet, those words, those words, “the least of these my brethren.” If ever there were the “least of these” surely these nigger boys are such.
(Again the judge opens his Bible and begins to read aloud.) “And their witnesses could not agree and disputed among themselves.”
(Shuts the book and exclaims as in pain.) What likeness, what tragic likeness to my court. That prostitute, she dared to tell the truth. I know she told the truth. In the face of the other was hatred and malice, but not in hers, only a great desire to get rid of a burden. And that boy, that white boy, he told the truth. Their story clashed with only one, that other prostitute. I saw so plainly that she was moved by prejudice and hate; the others by an inner light. Ah God, are we who are educated, calling ourselves “Christians,” are we less than the prostitute and the poor white? Do I dare as much as they? Does the governor; do our justices? Will these poor whites go into the kingdom of God ahead of us? I wonder. Dare I tell to all the world that I, the judge, know that for malice these boys have been delivered up, for race and sectional prejudice, for foolish and stupid pride, through ignorance and blindness? Dare I proclaim this? It would ruin my career. All these years I have worked hard to establish a good reputation among my fellows, to secure their confidence. But there is the chief justice. He dared. He stood alone. To what low words have I been forced to listen from even able men cursing him because he dared to follow his conscience. Would that I had his strong courage. Such men might save Alabama.
(The voices on the radio begin to grow stronger again. A terrible cry fills the room. It is the voice of Jesus from the cross.)
Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
(The judge quickly turns off the radio and wrings his hands in great mental distress.)
The Judge: Ah, but I know. I know. The governor knows. What excuse have we? The jury, they are ignorant. That attorney with his wild words and narrow bigotry, he may not know, the mob, crying for blood, they do not know, but oh I know, I know. What forgiveness is there for me, what excuse for me! I know, even as Pilate knew. And that last scene in the courtroom. How quiet the Sabbath morning. So few in court and we had looked for a crowd. They told me that the churches of the town were filled to capacity. It was Holy Communion.
(He opens his Bible and reads) “And it was the Sabbath and they would not come into the court, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover.”
Christians, who calls us Christians? What was that I read last week in that old Latin hook by Pontius? (Picks up another book) Here it is. (Turns the leaves and then reads) “An immense crowd filled the praetorium, brought hither by the thirst for vengeance, partly by the desire of witnessing a grand spectacle. Vhile the wrath of the populace was roaring against him and while death-cries were rising from the surging masses of the crowd, he had consolation of being surrounded by all the Christians of the city, who had hastened to the spot to sustain him by their sympathy and their prayers.” Yes. that was in the first century. Where are the Christians in the hour of these black boys’ dire need? What help to me are the good churchmen of Alabama? One did write me, a fine old minister. He wrote that he had sent an appeal to all his fellow ministers in the state and that not one replied, save some few colored pastors who begged that he should not reveal their names for fear of mob action against them. Perhaps Shaw was right in that play of his I read describing the trial of St. Joan. “God is alone.” How alone He must feel in Alabama tonight.
And now they demand that I join hands with them and become a partaker of their guilt, their hatred and their ignorance. I who have so long prided myself on my sense of justice and my freedom front the prejudice of my kind, at least when I sat in judgment at the bar. Now must I pronounce sentence on an innocent man, sending him to cruel death.
(A bell rings. The voice of his wife is heard at the door.)
The Judge’s Wife: Come, dinner is read, you can wash your hands downstairs.
(The judge bows his head and walks slowly and sadly from the room.)