Republicans have been working hard to whitewash or outright erase African American history in public schools around the country. Yet since last month, that same Black history has been mangled, flaunted, and manipulated by plenty of Republicans—often in a desperate attempt to cast Donald Trump as a victim of political persecution and unjust prosecution.
It’s pathetic, really. Let’s untangle the realities.
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DJT and MLK? NO WAY
Immediately after Trump’s mug shot from Fulton County, Georgia, was released, MAGA cultists began posting it alongside a mug shot of theRev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King, of course was perhaps most famously arrested in April 1963, for leading a march in defiance of an injunction banning all anti-segregation protest activity in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. King spent eight days in jail before being released on bail.
During that time, he wrote his famed “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he justified the tactic of civil disobedience, rejecting an appeal from local white clergymen to wait rather than engage in direct action.
To add insult to injury, on the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, one notorious Trump zealot posted a popular photoshopped image of Trump and King standing together, smiling.
”60 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. led 250,000 people to March on Washington in peace and the Reverend spoke about his dream for equality in America,” Brigitte Gabriel wrote. “This is the same dream President Trump has fought for his entire life. MLK Jr. would be disgusted with the treatment Trump has received.”
Back in 1963, when King led the March on Washington, Trump’s father’s real estate company was routinely turning away prospective Black tenants from its rental properties. Fred Trump also was arrested in 1927, “refusing to disperse from a parade when ordered to do so.” That “parade” was a violent Ku Klux Klan riot in the New York City borough of Queens.
A decade after the March, in 1973, the Justice Department sued both Fred and Donald Trump for discriminating against Black people via their real estate company. Trump’s racism didn’t abate; it continued to manifest itself through the years, most recently in his social media rants against the Black prosecutors who’ve brought cases against him.
Danielle Moodie, who hosts The Daily Beast’s podcast “The New Abnormal,” said it was “offensive and wrong” for Republicans to compare Trump to King, and post their mug shots side-by-side,
“I just look at that and I’m like, ‘Well, OK, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here, because you would be all for Martin Luther King rotting in jail,” Moodie said. “I’m not even sure what kind of comparison you’re trying to make here, but it just, it doesn’t work.”
And that’s on top of the eventual, widespread claims that having a mug shot would all but guarantee Trump the Black vote.
DESPERATE LAWYERS, DESPERATE MEASURES, More desperate comparisons
Trump’s lawyers, in response to Special Counsel Jack Smith’s proposed Jan. 2, start date for Trump’s trial on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, asked on August 17 that the trial be delayed until April 2026. Lawyers on social media ridiculed Team Trump’s response. Laurence Tribe, a legal scholar and Harvard Law School professor emeritus, called it “totally absurd.”
Trump’s lawyers claimed they needed the time to review the 11.5 million pages of documents provided by the prosecution. They even included a graphic showing that stacked together the documents would result in a 5,000-foot tower of paper that would be more than eight times taller than the Washington Monument.
Sure, such imagery might encourage MAGA supporters to donate money to Trump’s legal defense fund, but it’s irrelevant from a legal standpoint.
My Community Contributor teammate RO37, a lawyer who specializes in electronic discovery, quickly explained that Team Trump would need months, not years, to review the millions of pages.
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Smith’s team, in their response, said that delaying Trump’s trial until 2026 would "deny the public its right to a speedy trial" and “exaggerates the challenge” of reviewing the case documents.
But when it actually came to a legal basis for supporting their motion to delay the trial, Trump’s lawyers came out of the gate with the Scottsboro 9 and their 1932 SCOTUS verdict. It was the very first citation.
“The prompt disposition of criminal cases is to be commended and encouraged. But in reaching that result a defendant, charged with a serious crime, must not be stripped of his right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and prepare his defense. To do that is not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice but to go forward with the haste of the mob.” Powell v.State of Ala., 287 U.S. 45, 59 (1932).
Powell v. Alabama is a landmark Supreme Court decision that established, for the first time, that defendants in capital offense cases have the right to adequate legal counsel under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”
THE TRAGEDY OF THE SCOTTSBORO 9
In this short, accessible video, Harvard Law School professor Dehlia Umunna, a former public defender, explains what led up to Powell v. Alabama, and the case’s continuing relevance.
The lead plaintiff, Ozie Powell, was only 16 when he was arrested in March 1931, along with eight other Black youths. They got into a fight with a group of young white men while riding a freight train that had crossed into Alabama. Two white women on the train then accused the Black teenagers of raping them; one of the women, Ruby Bates, later recanted.
The nine Black youths—aged 12 to 19—were taken to a jail in the nearby town of Scottsboro. A mob of several hundred white men surrounded the jail, but Alabama’s governor, B.M. Miller, called in the National Guard to prevent a lynching. Miller had the teens moved to another jail.
The defendants became known as “the Scottsboro Boys.” As Umunna points out in the Harvard video above, “Boys” has heavily racist connotations when used to describe young Black men, both in 1931, and today; that term will not be used again in this story.
The nine travelers did not have a chance to meet with their court-appointed attorneys before their trials—which began just 12 days after their arrest. Not that it would have mattered much if they had. One of their attorneys was an unprepared Tennessee real estate attorney, who showed up drunk on the first day of trial; the other was a 70-year-old local attorney who hadn’t tried a case in decades.
In separate one-day trials, all nine defendants were found guilty by all-male, all-white juries; all but the youngest of the nine were sentenced to death.
The International Labor Defense, a group affiliated with the Communist Party, brought in a prominent New York criminal defense lawyer Samuel Leibowitz to represent the nine young men on appeal. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and death sentences. sending the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 decision known as Powell v. Alabama, the all-white, all-male SCOTUS overturned the convictions and ordered a retrial, on the grounds that the young men did not have adequate legal representation.
Five years of trials, appeals, and retrials—and the Scottsboro 9 were held in Alabama jails the entire time.
The case led to another landmark Supreme Court decision, in 1935’s Norris v. Alabama which overturned another conviction, on the grounds that Black residents had been systematically excluded from Alabama’s jury pools. The court ruled that this not only violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guaranteed right to equal protection under the law, but also the Sixth Amendment’s right to a fair trial.
While the Scottsboro 9 were ultimately spared from execution, they collectively ended up serving more than 100 years under brutal conditions in Alabama state prisons. And even upon release, they never fully recovered from the ordeal they had suffered; their lives were full of hardship and tragedy.
Here’s another, even shorter overview of the case of the Scottsboro 9.
A more detailed account of the case, by constitutional law Professor Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, describes the Scottsboro ordeal as “one of the most shameful examples of injustice in our nation's history.”
“LUDICROUS and OFFENSIVE” … AND Unsuccessful—SOUNDS LIKE TRUMP
That Trump’s lawyers would dare to compare his case to Powell is an utter travesty. A day after Trump’s lawyers filed their motion to delay the trial until 2026, Substacker Jay Kuo commented:
”That Donald Trump, who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for his legal defense, enjoys a whole party apparatus behind him, pays armies of lawyers to defend him, and committed crimes in real time for all the country to see, should compare himself or his case to the Scottsboro Boys is ludicrous and offensive. And I doubt that the reference will be missed by Judge Chutkan.”
And Chutkan, a former public defender herself, certainly didn’t miss anything. She set a March 4 start date for Trump’s trial.
Chutkan noted details of the Alabama case—in particular that the nine defendants were brought to trial six days after their indictments—and easily concluded that Trump’s case, “for any number of reasons, is profoundly different from Powell.”
MSNBC’s Jordan Rubin wrote:
On the contrary, she observed, the former president “is represented by a team of zealous, experienced attorneys and has the resources necessary to efficiently review the discovery and investigate.”
A March trial timeline in Trump’s case, Chutkan said, “does not move the case forward with the haste of the mob.”
The judge further explained that she has seen “many cases unduly delayed because a defendant lacks adequate representation or cannot properly review discovery because they are detained. That is not the case here.”
And in an interview on CNN, retired California Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell described the attempt by Trump’s lawyers to link the cases as “stunningly stupid.”
“Because one, the comparison is ridiculous. But second, if you want to alienate a judge in the case, this was exactly what to do. A female judge, a Black judge, and to talk about that case and compare it to Trump’s case was absurd. .. I think she was absolutely offended.”
Trump Can Relate to the scottsboro 9—Just not how he thinks
Trump’s claim of victimization and being denied due process is absurd, especially when considering he’s more like the mob of white Alabamans who couldn’t wait to put innocent Black teenagers to death after they were indicted on rape charges.
In April 1989, five black and Latino teenagers, ultimately known as the Central Park Five, were arrested after a female jogger was raped in Central Park. The teenagers said they were interrogated by police, beaten, and coerced into confessing to the rape. They appeared on video without a lawyer.
Trump took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers, calling for New York state to reinstate the death penalty.
Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence. Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them. I am looking to punish them. If the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop.
It was a harbinger of things to come. Yusef Salaam, who was 15 at the time of his arrest, told The Guardian in 2016 that Trump was the “firestarter.”
“Common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that we were guilty,” Salaam said. He added that when he first saw the ads he had no idea who Trump was.
“We were all afraid. Our families were afraid. Our loved ones were afraid. For us to walk around as if we had a target on our backs, that’s how things were.”
Salaam told The Guardian that he and his family received death threats after Trump’s ads ran. Trump showed his true colors back then.
The five teenagers were convicted, based largely on their coerced confessions. They received prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years.
In 2002, a serial rapist and murderer already serving a life sentence confessed to the Central Park rape. A re-examination of DNA evidence proved only his semen was found on the victim’s body. A court vacated the convictions of the Central Park Five, who then became known as the Exonerated Five.
In 1976, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace granted a full pardon to Clarence Norris, the sole surviving member of the Scottsboro 9. Norris had been released on parole and left Alabama in 1946. He worked as a warehouseman for the City of New York.
“The lesson to black people, to my children, to everybody, is that you should always fight for your rights, even if it costs you your life. Stand up for your rights, even if it kills you. That's all that life consists of,” Norris said at a news conference after the pardon announcement.
As recently as 2019, Trump insisted he would not apologize for his harsh comments about the Central Park Five, The New York Times reported.
“You have people on both sides of that,” Trump said at the White House. “They admitted their guilt.”
After Trump’s first criminal indictment—by New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg in April on charges related to a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels—Salaam posted an ad of his own.
In July, Salaam, now a criminal justice reform advocate, was declared the winner of the Democratic primary for a city council seat in a Harlem district.
SINGING OF SCOTTSBORO
Trump’s history of racism is well-established, so it would make sense that he fears a country where bigotry isn’t welcomed. After all, “Trump has not only always been a racist, but anyone around him who denies it, is lying,” former Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino president Jack O’Donnell told The New York Times in 2019. “Donald Trump makes racist comments all the time. Once you know him, he speaks his mind about race very openly.”
Which brings us to one last noteworthy impact of the Scottsboro 9, relating to the origin of the term “woke,” which refers to being aware and alert of racism in all of its forms—a state of awareness that Trump and the right deeply fear, even if they don’t always understand it.
It’s been suggested that “woke” was first used in a 1938 recording of the song “Scottsboro Boys” by blues and folk singer Lead Belly.
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The lyrics are basically a warning to Black people not to go to Alabama lest they share the fate of the Scottsboro 9.
I'm gonna tell all the colored people
Livin' in Harlem swing
Don't ya ever go to Alabama
Just try to sing
Go to Alabama and ya better watch out
The landlord'll get ya, gonna jump and shout
Scottsboro Scottsboro Scottsboro boys
Gon' tell ya all about
At the very end of the recording, Lead Belly speaks to his listeners and warns them to be “a little careful” in Alabama. “Stay woke,” he says. “Keep your eyes open.”
Eighty-five years later, it’s still solid advice.