On March 25 1931 nine young African Americans were arrested in Alabama for the alleged rape of two white women, nearly lynched, sentenced to death, and eventually incarcerated for years. This article examines the arrest photograph of the Scottsboro Nine and enacts a ‘social biography’ in exploring its conflicting uses in American media. The article proposes that it is an ‘averted lynching photograph’ that echoes images of actual lynch executions. Southern newspapers used leading captions with encoded racial hierarchies that framed the Nine as violators of white womanhood. Conversely, radical media re-framed the photograph to argue that a ‘frame-up’ trial constituted a ‘legal lynching’. The Communist organization International Labor Defense (ILD) led the campaign to acquit the defendants, and its magazine Labor Defender reproduced the photograph extensively in polemical photomontages. Diverse uses in African American media varied from analogous captioning in the combative The Chicago Defender to its pertinent absence in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s forum The Crisis. Many of these media framings fostered the abjection and victimhood of the Nine, whether in condemnation or sympathy. The photograph was a site of contestation of conflicting values concerning race, in which the subjects had little agency.
Haran, B. (in press). Photography in the Big Frame: Conflicting Media Uses of the 1931 Arrest Photograph of the Scottsboro Nine. History of Photography,