NONFICTION

STORIES OF SCOTTSBORO: The Rape Case that Shocked 1930's America and Revived the Struggle for Equality by James Goodman (Pantheon: $27.50; 465 pp.). "When I hear the word culture ," Hermann Goering is supposed to have said, "I reach for my pistol." The reader is likely to have a similar reaction while perusing "Stories of Scottsboro," only the hot-button concept in this book is "states rights" and its remedy, federal law. In the 1930s, Alabama officials held nearly a dozen notorious trials intent on convicting the so-called Scottsboro Boys, black youths (ages 13 to 19) accused of raping two white women on a freight train, and won conviction every time, despite meager, manufactured and coerced evidence. The nine defendants, whose innocence is now beyond dispute, would have been executed were it not for the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court, which twice overturned their state convictions. James Goodman, a history professor at Harvard, tells the complex story in 54 chapter-length vignettes, dexterously weaving issues and episodes into a malignant tapestry--what the star of the book, defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, called "a carousel of hate." Goodman shies away from the idea that "Stories of Scottsboro" is definitive--he writes in the preface that he has "created the illusion of stillness, or comprehensible movement, out of the always seamless, often chaotic flow of consciousness and experience"--but it's hard to imagine a more complete, or more compelling, version of the Scottsboro events. (Footnote, apropos Goodman's aversion to historical certainty: the new edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations attributes the infamous "pistol" quote above to Nazi writer Hanns Johst.)

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