"Didn't some white man in Boston shoot his pregnant wife and then shot hisself, crying, `Oh, niggers did it'?" goes a routine by veteran African-American comic Paul Mooney. "That's why I'm gonna start 900-Blame-a-Nigger. When white folks get in trouble, just call my agency: `I just pushed my mother down the stairs. Send a nigger over here.' "
Mooney's tart barb is based on an ugly truth. Since the days of slavery, white Americans have falsely accused black men of crimes, playing off the racist stereotype of the black male as a criminal and an insatiable sexual beast. Legal scholars call this kind of accusation a racial hoax, and the Boston case of Charles Stuart is one of too many. In 1989, Stuart killed his pregnant wife, shot himself to make it seem he was a victim, too, and blamed a black man. Police even apprehended a suspect. When they began to believe that Stuart was the killer, he committed suicide.
No excuse. Perhaps the most notorious racial hoax centered on the "Scottsboro boys." Two white women charged nine blacks with raping them on a freight train on March 25, 1931. The charges wrecked the young men's lives, though they escaped the vigilante's noose. In the heyday of racial hoaxes, unproven allegations strung up some 5,000 African-Americans, says historian Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Whites didn't need an excuse to kill blacks."
Gangs of young blacks and whites were sneaking a ride that day, chasing jobs and looking for fun. A white boy's shoe trod on a black teen's hand, a fight broke out, and nine blacks were arrested, ages 13 to 20. Then a sheriff caught two more riders, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Fearful they'd be jailed for hoboing, the white women spun a rape story and fingered the black arrestees, says Dan Carter, author of Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. "Making these accusations placed the girls on a pedestal," he notes. The Huntsville Times wrote: "Death Penalty Properly Demanded in Fiendish Crime of Nine Burly Negroes."
"Burly" was an overstatement. One of the nine was nearly blind, another walked with a cane. Doctors found no sign of rape, but the trial went on. The defendants' attorneys, a known drunk and a rusty 70-year-old, gave no closing argument. And the young men turned on each other. "They all raped her," testified Clarence Norris, claiming he was innocent. Roy Wright, 13, also accused the others. Jailhouse beatings prompted their accusations, they later said. After several days of testimony, the jury decided the "Scottsboro boys," named for the Alabama town where the trial was held, were guilty. All were sentenced to the electric chair, except young Wright.
After the first trial, Ruby Bates recanted, saying the sheriff pressured her. "If I didn't tell the story about these innocent Scottsboro boys," she declared in 1933, "I'd be lynched myself." But Price never wavered, and juries kept believing her, rejecting all appeals. The "boys" spent years in prison, often beaten by guards. A sheriff shot handcuffed Ozie Powell in the head after he had assaulted a guard.
Eventually, Price's hoax sputtered to an end. Alabamians grew weary of endless demonstrations for justice and began to doubt her word. By the mid-1940s, all the Scottsboro defendants were paroled, except Haywood Patterson, who escaped in 1948. He was caught in Michigan, but the governor refused to hand him over to Alabama.
Victoria Price "always believed she was raped," says Raymond Fraley, who handled her 1976 libel suit against NBC for depicting her as a whore in a docudrama. "But I think now [her testimony] was probably a falsehood." James Goodman, author of Stories of Scottsboro, goes a step further. "Their story was fabricated out of whole cloth," he says, stressing the lack of physical evidence.
But Price has plenty of disciples. Katheryn Russell, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, collected over 40 reports of a white person falsely accusing an African-American from 1987 to 1996 alone. Today's deceptions tend to be short-lived, says Russell, mostly because of better law enforcement and a wary public.
Blacks have pointed to white fall guys as well, although much less frequently and far less successfully. In 1987, Tawana Brawley, 15, accused six white cops of rape. A grand jury later concluded that she lied to deflect her stepfather's wrath when she missed her curfew.