Come, Sit A Spell: James E. Horton Jr. and His Indelible Mark on Justice, Civil Rights, and Limestone County
Celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial 2019 Theme: Our Stories
James Edwin Horton Jr. the man…
James Edwin Horton Jr. was born in Limestone County near the Elk River to the great-niece of President Andrew Jackson, Emily Donelson, and a father, James Edwin Horton Sr., former Civil War military aide-de-camp to General Donelson turned cotton and cattle farmer in January 1878. The Horton family migrated ...
... from their farm in the county that the elder Horton had settled in 1857 and into Athens when James Jr. was a young boy.
Chronic illness is attributed to have kept the younger James from school and under his mother’s care until the age of 8. The delay in formal education did not prevent him from enrolling in Vanderbilt University to pursue a medical degree by his father's wishes. However, the junior Horton determined medicine was not his forte and he enrolled at Cumberland University in Lebanon Tennessee and followed his 1897 Bachelor of Arts by pursuing a law degree at Cumberland Law School and attaining a Bachelor of Law in 1899.
Horton returned to Athens and clerked for his father who was a sitting Probate Judge before making the leap into his own practice. The younger Horton then turned his attention to the Alabama State Legislature where he achieved the duties of office for one term (1910-1914). He followed his first term with a stint in the Alabama State Senate until an opening lead him back to the bench as a Chancery Judge in Limestone County.
He enjoyed a short one-block walk to his second-floor chambers from his home at 200 Hobbs Street where he lived with his wife Anna, 19-year-old stepson and two young sons. The homestead had been built in 1849 by the great-great uncle of his wife and had a walkway lined with twelve mountain cedars that stood sentinel over the property. The towering cedars couldn’t deflect the occupation of the Union Forces when they came to Athens and literally left a mark on the home by carving into the door of a corner room “Three cheers for Lincoln – Nov 7 1864”.
The young Judge James E. Horton Jr was elected after campaigning to the Eighth Circuit Court in 1922. He was described as diligent – beginning court promptly at 8:30AM and keeping session until 5:30PM. He was considered relaxed and casual in demeanor in the courtroom. It was said he wrote better than he spoke – as his thoughts seemed to race ahead of his words. Above all – he was considered fair and was respected by the attorneys.
It was his office in the Eighth Circuit Court that brought him to hear the second Scottsboro Boys trial - which entrenched him in the history of the United States, Civil Rights and influenced laws and cases for years to come.
Judge Horton Jr’s Decatur Scottsboro Boy Trial…
Judge James E. Horton Jr. himself a lanky man in appearance that was often compared to President Abraham Lincoln, was named to the judgeship of the re-trial Scottsboro Boys in Decatur. His appointment to the bench for this trial was heralded and praised by both the prosecution and defense.
The Scottosboro Boys trial was conducted before an all-white, all-male jury in Jim Crow era Alabama. The evidence and testimony was barely weighed after a two week trial when the jury returned with convictions of the eight young boys to death for their alleged actions of rape of two women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, aboard a train from Chattanooga to Huntsville on March 25, 2931.
The final and youngest of the nine brought to trial, 13-year-old Leroy Wright, met with the fate of a hung jury and life-imprisonment rather than death – but his verdict was overturned and declared a mistrial, leaving him in prison until 1937 awaiting the final verdict of his co-defendents.
The verdicts for these young boys shocked, appalled, and triggered international responses sighting the racism of the American legal system. It was after the International Labor Defense (ILD), a wing of the American Communist Party (CP) took interest in hopes to galvanize public opinion against racism and sought stays of execution in the Alabama Supreme Court. The ILD continued its national campaign to free the nine young men – Charlie Weems, Ozie Power, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Robertson, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams, and Andrew and Leroy Wright. The CP staged sit-ins, rallies, speeches, parades, demonstrations and letter writing campaigns to bring attention to the plight of the Scottsboro Boys and their guilty verdict.
Eventually the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined the CP/ILD and other civil rights organizations to create the Scottsboro Boy Defense Committee lead by New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz.
Judge Horton Jr. opened the courtroom to the press, an unexpected but welcomed opportunity for transparency and information sharing during the Haywood Patterson Trial. Judge Horton Jr. even shook the hands to two African-American journalists who had sought to be part of this historical and groundbreaking moment.
The Scottsboro Defense Committee lead attorney, Samuel Liebowitz, drew the ire of the Decatur when opened his defense by challenging Alabama’s exclusion of blacks on the jury rolls. Liebowitz began to draw death threats that grew more intense after a strident cross-examination of Victoria Price that left whispers in the gallery, “It’ll be a wonder if he gets out of here alive”.
The honorable Horton Jr. would look into the faces of the witnesses as they spoke including that of Dr. R.R. Bridges, the physician who examined both women within hours of the incident and testified that he did not believe the women were ever raped. Dr. Lynch, who didn’t take the stand and could not be persuaded even by Horton to testify, spoke freely in Judge’s Chambers also concurred the assault did not happen. Horton response to the young doctor Lynch, “My God, Doctor, is this whole thing a horrible mistake?”.
Eventually Ruby Bates, one of the alleged rape victims, came forward and repudiated her story explaining it was the pressure of police officers and the armed mobbed in Paint Rock where the train had been stopped and all of the “negro” riders seized after the Stevenson Sheriff called with allegations from a group of white boys had said they were thrown from the train by “a bunch of Negroes” and were waiting to press charges.
The level headed junior Horton was forced to address bigotry and rumors of lynch mobs including a time when he excused the jury and addressed the open court:
“I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is a murderer; he is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer… I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit… Your very civilizations depends upon the carrying out of your laws in an orderly manner.”
He tried to inform the jury in their duties as neutral weighers of evidence,
“You are not trying whether or not the defendant is white or black – you are not trying that question; you are trying whether or not this defendant forcibly ravished a woman.”
“You are not trying lawyers, you are not trying State lines, but you are here at home as jurors, a jury of your citizens under oath sitting in the jury box taking the evidence and considering it, leaving out any outside influences.”
However, these words of reminder and temperance nor the recanting of the rape allegation by one victim or the medical evidence indicating no assault had occurred, managed to sway the Morgan County members of the jury to deliver justice blindly as they returned a sentence of death to Judge Horton. He read the sentence to record but postponed the trial due to the inflamed atmosphere of Decatur. Samuel Liebowitz was shocked verdict and compared it to “the act of spitting on the tomb of Abraham Lincoln.”
It was on the day of June 22, 1933 that Judge Horton resumed the trial but this time in his hometown of Athens. The judge vacated the verdict and ordered a new trial for Patterson. His response to the court and press,
“History, sacred and profane, and the common experience of mankind teach us that women of character shown in this case are prone for selfish reasons to make false accusations both of rape and of insult upon the slightest provocation for ulterior purposes. These women are shown, by the great weight of the evidence, on this very day before leaving Chattanooga, to have falsely accused two negroes of insulting them, and of almost precipitating a fight between one of the white boys they were in the company of and these two negroes. This tendency on the part of the women shows that they are predisposed to make false accusations upon any occasion whereby their selfish ends may be gained.
Judge James Edwin Horton Jr. knew that this deliverance of justice – beyond the bias and bigotry would be the end of his political career and had been warned so. However, he firmly believed “let justice be done, though the heavens may fall”.
After Judge Horton’s adjudication of verdict...
The state asked Judge Horton to step down from the case and transferred all of the Scottsboro Boy cases to the courtroom of Judge William Callahan. The move became of exercise futility when every motion and objection denied for the defense and sustained for the prosecution. Judge Callahan openly mocked, scolded and reprimanded Leibowitz – challenging his defense tactic in courts. Both Patterson and Norris were found guilty and sentenced to death – a finding that drove a wedge between Leibowitz and the ILD/CP.
Leibowitz returned north and began to speak to crowds vowing to defend the Boys. He swore appeal the guilty verdicts to the Supreme Court and back to Alabama and justice is finally delivered. Leibowitz continued to endear himself with his clients and supports summing up his resolution with, “It’ll be a merry-go-round, and if some Klu Kluxer doesn’t put a bullet through my head, I’ll go right along until they let the passengers off.”
Again, public opinion incited a flood of editorials, telegrams and letters but this time to Horton’s court. Some condemned Samuel Leibowitz or the Judge’s tolerance of him. Others threatening him if he reversed the jury’s sentences. While others praised him for his efforts to deliver justice fairly and equally.
Leibowitz kept his promise and appeared before the United States Supreme Court in January 1932 in appeal of Patterson’s and Norris’s convictions on the grounds that blacks were systematically excluded from Alabama juries – preventing a “jury of peers”. Leibowitz alleged that blacks added to the jury rolls in Morgan County only did so after Haywood’s trial had begun. The Justices of the Supreme Court asked Leibowitz if he could prove his allegation – which he did by simply asking for the jury roll and a magnifying glass. The Justices, one by one, passed the scroll and magnifying glass and were left in awe that the faking of the rolls would be so evident. And with this evidence, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions that Leibowitz would call a “triumph of American justice”.
As other trials loomed for other Scottsboro Boys in 1935, Leibowitz was finding himself drawn and pulled to other cases and at the whims of Judge Callahan who wasn’t about support such an outcome. Leibowitz managed a meeting in December 1936 with Thomas Knight, Alabama Attorney General, and a compromise was reached for four of the young men would be released while others would move forward in trial. It was a bittersweet victory for Leibowitz but one that never came to fruition with the death of Knight in May 1937. Leibowitz ended up passing the lead attorney role to a local attorney and he taking on more indirect position as the third trial for Clarence Norris got under way in July 12 1937 and ended on July 13 with a guilty verdict and death sentence. Andy Wright’s trial was next with a sentence of 99 years. July 24th saw the verdict of 75 years passed down for Charlie Weem. Ozie Powell arrived minutes after Weem’s verdict and discovered the state was dropping charges against him for the rape and would be taking his guilty plea for the assault of an officer. Another announcement was that Lawson, the prosecutor of the case, would be dropping charges against the remaining four defendants: Willie Roberst, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright – all whom had been waiting in jail for over six years without a trial.
Judge James Edwin Horton Jr. retired from politics in 1934, the year he lost re-elections to Circuit Judge. He practiced law as a private practioner for many years until his passing in 1972.
In 1935, Ozie Powell, under transport to the Birmingham Prison where incarcerated allegedly produced a pen knife from his pocket while in handcuffs in the backset of a car and managed to slice the neck of a deputy sheriff, injuring him seriously. The sheriff swiftly stopped the car, exited and shot Powell in the head claiming it an escape attempt. Powell said he was growing intensely afraid as the car headed southward and he was afraid he was about to be murdered when he took action. Powell also claimed his arms were above his head when he was shot – though severely wounded, Powell survived the head wound with permanent brain damage. Assault on a police officer was the only charge Ozie eventually faced and plead guilty to.
The five incarcerated members – Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andy Wright and Haywood Patterson – languished in Alabama prisons experiencing horrific and traumatic treatment. Hopes of a pardon by Governor Bibb Graves in 1938 were dashed when the pre-release interviews went horribly wrong – Patterson found with a knife; Ozie Powell refusing to answer questions; Clarence Norris threatening to kill Haywood Patterson in the interview and the final straw for Graves – no member of the Scottsboro Boys would admit guilt or knowledge of the rape.
The incarcerated members eventually made parole – Charles Weems in 1943; Ozie Powell and Clarence Norris in 1946; and Andy Wright in 1950.
Haywood Patterson would escape in 1948 and remained free until 1950. He wrote a book of his life while on the run about his experience. The Governor of Michigan where Patterson was captured refused extradition.
The last surviving Scottsboro Boy, Clarence Norris, was pardoned by Alabama Governor George Wallace in October 1976.
Clarence Norris also published a book of his experience, The Last of the Scottsboro Boys, in 1979. Norris passed in January 1989.
Samuel Leibowitz, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of New York, passed in January 1978.
In April 2013, Governor Robert Bentley signed into law the resolution declaring posthumous pardons for all defendants against whom the charges were not dismissed. Also signed into law was a resolution declaring all nine members of the Scottsboro Boys innocent.
In November 2013, The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted posthumous pardons to Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson.
In October 2017, a bronze statue was erected on the west side of the Limestone County Courthouse in downtown Athens accompanied by a historic marker recognizing the contributions and service of Judge James E. Horton Jr.
In 2018, the United State Congress authorized the renaming of the Athens United State Post Office in honor of Judge James Edwin Horton Jr. The re-dedication of the Post Office will occur April 24, 2019.
Judge James E. Horton Junior Monument & Historic Marker