On March 25 1931, an armed mob stopped a freight train at Paint Rock, Alabama, and rounded up nine African- American youths, the youngest of whom was 13.
Two young white women and one white man were also taken off the train.
"Hoboing," or hitching rides on freight trains, the original pretext for stopping the train, was illegal.
Sheriff's deputies arrested the nine young men, loaded them onto a flatbed lorry and took them to the Jackson County jail in Scottsboro.
There they were charged with a second offence, "having raped the white girls in a freight car passing through Alabama."
When a crowd gathered at the jail, the sheriff called the governor who, in turn, called out the National Guard and the mob dispersed.
Twelve days later, all nine were put on trial and in four days, four separate all-white, all-male juries convicted eight and sentenced them to death.
I lived in Chattanooga, Tennesee, at that time, as did four of the nine. I first heard of the case while I was in jail awaiting trial for "sedition."
I considered the arrest of the Scottsboro "boys" and my arrest as two sides of the same coin - they were riding the rails in search of work and I was working to organise the unemployed who had been thrown out of work.
The arrest, trial and conviction of these unemployed black youths was a symbol of the inequality of the then 12 million African-Americans in the US.
Their trial was a legal lynching - that they had been framed and sentenced to death under the pretext of "rape."
During the Hoover administration of the early 1930s the US found itself in the midst of a devastating economic depression, with millions out of work.
Although things were hard in the north, they were desperate in the south where the depression had really begun in 1927.
But by 1931 a mass fightback had begun. Throughout the country unemployed councils, led by the Trade Union Unity League and the Communist Party, were organising.
Petitions with more than a million signatures demanding relief and unemployment insurance had been presented to the White House in December 1930. I was a leader of the Unemployed Council in Chattanooga.
The councils called mass demonstrations across the country for March 6 to demand that Congress pass the Lundeen Bill for relief, unemployment insurance and social security.
The Chattanooga demonstration was attended by many black and white workers, but even before the rally started the three scheduled speakers, including myself, were arrested.
We were indicted for sedition and held without bail while awaiting trial. Nothing like this happened anywhere else in the country - but it gives one a taste of the south at that time.
When I read about the conviction of the Scottsboro youths, I told my co-worker that when we were released I would secure the legal arm of the CPUSA, the International Labour Defence (ILD), for this case.
The way the ILD had conducted our trial showed that it was the only organisation that would mobilise the kind of campaign that would overturn the savage death sentences given to these youngsters.
Our lawyers didn't just depend on arguing the fine points of the law or on the "impartiality" of the courts. They said we had to pack the courtroom with our supporters and appeal to the public for support. And they were right.
Our trial was held in a courtroom packed with black and white unemployed workers and we were freed after a three-day trial thanks in part to the eloquence of Joe Brodsky, the ILD lawyer who helped us defeat the city's sedition charge.
Half an hour after my release I was visiting Sherman Bell, who was affectionately called the "Mayor" of Chattanooga's black community.
He had been a delegate to the convention of the American Negro Labour Congress (ANLC) in St Louis that issued a "Bill of Negro Rights" with the aim of developing a movement to enact legislation for African-American rights and to suppress lynching.
The ANLC changed its name at this convention to the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and became an active participant in the Scottsboro case.
Bell and I visited Ms Wright and Ms Patterson, mothers of three of the Scottsboro defendants. We told them about how our trial had been conducted - a packed courtroom and a team of eloquent lawyers who believed in our programme of equality for African-American people.
We explained that the case of the Scottsboro Nine was not a case that could be won in a southern court room.
We said that a mass protest movement capable of rallying millions of people from around the world was required if there was to be a stay of the execution scheduled for July 10. We said that without that stay, nothing else mattered.
Wright and Patterson told us they had been visited by representatives of the NAACP that morning who would, most likely, return. And they did.
But, after 10 days of visits and discussion with these two mothers, we secured their agreement that the ILD would represent their sons. Shortly after, the other parents agreed to representation by the ILD.
Immediately following the trial and sentencing the ILD went to court, demanding a stay of execution and a new trial, since the defendants had not had counsel of their choice during their trial. The rest is history.
Demonstrations were organised in major cities across the country and US embassies became the target of angry demonstrators abroad as millions supported the ILD demand.
The militant defence of the Scottsboro Nine became a catalyst that helped bring union organisation to thousands of southern workers.
Sharecroppers in Alabama and Arkansas joined the Sharecroppers Union, while workers employed by Tennessee Coal and Iron and miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, joined unions and laid the base for the CIO that loomed just over the horizon.
The Scottsboro defence by the Communist Party and the International Labour Defence was not a bolt from the blue.
Nor was it a liberal humanitarian gesture limited to the plight of nine unemployed black youths. To the contrary.
The decision to represent and fight for the Scottsboro Nine was preceded by years of activity led by the Communist Party and its predecessor organisations.
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