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Arkansas "Scottsboro" Case

The trial and conviction of African-American farm laborers Bubbles Clayton and James X. Caruthers for the rape of a white woman, Virgie Terry, in Mississippi County drew national attention to the Arkansas criminal justice system and became widely known as the Arkansas “Scottsboro” Case.

Clayton, age twenty-one, and Caruthers, age nineteen, were arrested at Blytheville (Mississippi County) in January 1935 and charged as suspects in the armed robberies of couples in parked cars. Their arrest followed an incident in which Sheriff Clarence Wilson was injured in an attempted robbery while in a parked car near the Blytheville country club. Taken from the county jail by authorities on pretense of protection from mob violence, the two men were beaten with rubber hoses to secure confessions, then transported to Memphis, Tennessee. They were subsequently taken to a death row cell at Tucker Prison Farm, 140 miles away, where they were held without bond or access to a lawyer.

Clayton and Caruthers were never tried on the original charges of robbery, but two months later, Sheriff Wilson and Deputy Arch Lindsey drove Virgie Terry and Wiley Bryant to the State Penal Farm at Tucker (Jefferson County). They identified Clayton and Caruthers as the masked men who allegedly raped Virgie Terry and assaulted her boyfriend on the night of December 21, 1934, while the couple was parked near Sawyer Cemetery, on a county road about a mile and a half southeast of Blytheville.

On April 1, 1935, the men were indicted for the rape. All local lawyers declined to defend them, so Judge Neil Killough appointed Arthur Adams of Jonesboro (Craighead County) and set the case for trial on April 8. Adams was a respected attorney, but his handling of the case left much to question. He secured only a single, defective affidavit in support of a motion for change of venue, which the court denied, and he later admitted that his effort to seek affidavits was limited.

Most significantly, Adams consciously decided not to challenge the racial composition of the all-white grand and petit juries, although the county (thirty-eight percent black) had a long history of excluding minorities from the jury pool. Adams picked at the state’s case based only on testimony of white witnesses, particularly attacking the unorthodox identification of the defendants, who were said to be wearing caps and masks during the alleged crime on a rural road in the dark of night. Prosecuting Attorney Denver Dudley discounted their alibis, mentioned previous arrests, freely played to racial fears, and secured guilty verdicts that same evening. Adams filed a motion for a new trial, raising the sufficiency of the evidence, misconduct by the prosecutor, and denial of the change of venue, but making no mention that African Americans were excluded from the jury. Judge Killough summarily denied the motion.

White citizens in Blytheville brought the case to the attention of the Little Rock (Pulaski County) office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).The NAACP enlisted an interracial group of attorneys for various appeals over the next four years, including John R. Thompson, John Hibbler, Lewis Rhoton, J. R. Booker, and Scipio Jones in Arkansas, as well as Charles H. Houston from the NAACP and Carol King with International Labor Defense.

The case was called the “Second Scottsboro Case” by the Pittsburgh Courier, an appellation embraced by the Atlanta World, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, and other newspapers, drawing a comparison between the Arkansas case and the Alabama rape convictions of nine black teenagers that had drawn national attention. The Alabama convictions had twice been reversed and remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court on account of prosecutors having hurried the case to trial without adequate time for lawyers to prepare a defense (1932) and for exclusion of African Americans from the juries (1935).

The convictions of Clayton and Caruthers were affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court in November 1935, and a rehearing was denied in January 1936, as was a subsequent writ for a new trial. The flawed trial strategy of defense counsel Arthur Adams had doomed the appeal because the court observed that there was nothing in the record to show that there were no African Americans on the jury.

Efforts to secure relief in the federal courts grounded on denial of due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments were equally unsuccessful. Fearing for the defendants’ safety, authorities had moved them from Blytheville three times after their arrest. Affidavits offered by the defense confirmed that “the atmosphere was full of talk” about violence and contended that local newspaper coverage had been inflammatory. Officers testified that there was no threat of violence, and the newspaper editor noted an editorial, “Let the Law Take Its Course,” that advised against lynching the defendants. The District Court and the Eighth Circuit rejected the arguments that mob violence prevented a fair trial, that African Americans were systematically excluded from the juries, and that a change of venue was prevented by the mob spirit dominating the county.

The labor drama class at Commonwealth College wrote a play about the case, distributing scripts widely with an appeal for funds to the Arkansas branch of the NAACP. The Blytheville Courier News editorialized against “outside groups” concerned with “civil liberties” and pursuing appeals on “technicalities,” such as the racial exclusion of African Americans from the jury.

On June 5, 1939, after more than four years of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The NAACP then attempted to secure executive clemency. Thurgood Marshall was assured that Governor Carl Bailey would return from the World’s Fair before June 30 and would hold a hearing on clemency, but that did not happen. Lieutenant Governor Bob Bailey received more than 200 letters and telegrams supporting clemency, but he refused to conduct a hearing or issue a stay.

Clayton and Caruthers were executed on June 30, 1939. Caruthers was said to have confessed while in the electric chair, but Clayton maintained his innocence.

For additional information:
August Meier Papers, Carruthers [sic] and Clayton Case, Arkansas, 1935–1939. Box 143, Folder 23. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library, New York, New York.

Clayton v. State, 191 Ark 1970 (1935) Docket Nos. 3944 and 3945. Arkansas Supreme Court Brief and Records, Series 1. University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Carruthers [sic] et al. v. Reed, Keeper of Arkansas State Penitentiary, 102 F.2d 933 (8th Cir., 1939); cert. denied, 307 U.S. 643 (1939).

“Girl Identifies Negro Defendants.” Blytheville Courier News, April 9, 1935, p. 1.

“Hold Negroes Who Wounded Sheriff.” Blytheville Courier News, January 14, 1935, p. 1.

Koslow, Jules. “We Are Not Alone: A One Act Dramatization of the Case of Bubbles Clayton and Jim X. Caruthers, Now in the Death Cell at Tucker Farm.” Mena, AR: Commonwealth College, 1938.

“The Law’s Delays.” Blytheville Courier News, December 11, 1936, p. 4.

“Let the Law Take Its Course.” Blytheville Courier News, April 2, 1935, p. 4.

N.A.A.C.P. Annual Reports. New York: N.A.A.C.P., 1935–1939.

“Negroes Get Chair for Attack on Girl.” Blytheville Courier News, April 12, 1935, p. 1.

Papers of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal File, Cases Supported, Clayton and Caruthers, April 1935–1939. Part 8, Series A, Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System, 1910–1955. Legal Department and Central Office Records, 1910–1939; Reel 5, Frame 0543–Reel 6, Frame 0270. Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

“‘Petting Party’ Bandits to Face Capital Charge.” Blytheville Courier News, March 9, 1935, p. 1.

“Remove Negroes as Crowd Threatens.” Blytheville Courier News, January 16, 1935, p. 1.

Stephen A. Smith
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Last Updated 1/24/2012

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