In 1976, NBC television aired a "docudrama" about the famous Scottsboro Boys, a group of black youths who were almost lynched and then imprisoned in the 1930s after being accused of raping a white woman. The one person NBC was sure was not watching its portrayal of racial injustice in America was Victoria Price, the accuser. The program said she was dead.
Last month that same woman, now 75, living in relative isolation and poverty for more than 40 years, went out and bought a house, paying for it in cash, with the money NBC paid her after settling her libel suit out of court.
Victoria Price, now Victoria Price Street, was indeed watching television on that night in 1976. She had been telephoned by a friend as the program began. "Aunt Tora, Aunt Tora," the friend said. "Turn on Channel 31. There's the awfullest film you ever seen of you in your life."
Street heard herself described on television as a "bum," a "whore" and a perjurer, among other things. In her words: "They had me a-layin' down in there, in that boxcar with a bunch of boys, calling me 'Big Legs,' calling me 'Bitches,' sayin' that my mother was running a whorehouse and that I was a-meetin' men in there . . . . And I never done no such thing."
"I could have sunk through the floor when I seen it," she says now. "Oh boy, I got so angry. I was gonna. . . tear up that TV. But my friend says, 'Mrs. Street, I'd make 'em pay for it. You can talk to your lawyer about it.' "
She did get a lawyer, Fayetteville attorney Raymond W. Fraley Jr. Together they took the libel case against NBC all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Scottsboro case had made history nearly half a century before. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case but dismissed it after the settlement, the details of which are secret under the agreement.
The issue the court would have considered was whether Victoria Price, once a name known all over the country, was still a public figure and thus must prove that NBC acted recklessly in its portrayal of her. In its personal sense, the issue for Victoria Price Street was whether she could forget, or be forgotten.
Fifty years ago, Victoria Price and her friend, Ruby Bates, hopped a freight train between Chattanooga and Memphis in search of work. Nine young blacks also rode the train. When the freight reached Scottsboro, Ala., the two women said the blacks had beaten and raped them. Troops were summoned to prevent a riot and a lynching. There were five trials, two landmark Supreme Court decisions, an international controversy rivaling Sacco and Vanzetti, a plea for mercy from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and ultimately prison terms for five of the blacks.
Bates eventually recanted, but Price never did. When she first made her accusations, the southern press portrayed her as a "flower of southern womanhood." By the time defense lawyers from New York got through cross-examining her, trying to show sexual promiscuity, the flower's reputation was badly wilted.
The Scottsboro Boys are now enshrined in encyclopedias, right after Sir Walter Scott. Although some of the blacks were convicted, most of the written work on the case since the trial has portrayed them as victims. The last surviving defendant, Clarence Norris, was pardoned by Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace in 1976.
For 40 years, Victoria Price has been chopping and picking cotton, working in the mills, working as a tenant farmer, living in what most people would call a shack not 40 miles from Scottsboro with few reminders of what happened in another era.
Street hasn't read the encyclopedias. The only reading materials visible in her house are the yellowed newspapers she uses as cushions to protect her from the metal wires that once held her couch together but now protrude from it. For her, the curtain went down with the last of the Scottsboro trials in 1940 and didn't rise again until the night of the television program.
"Ruby Bates left me holding the bag," she says, waving a wrinkled finger in anger. "I held it. I held it all that time. Well, if I had to have it over, I'd hold it again . . . . If Thomas Knight the Scottsboro prosecutor had had 'em executed, they done promised me I could push the button. And I'd do it. I'd push it.
"That sounds hard-hearted, don't it? Well, I'd have pushed it and laughed. 'Cause you don't know what kind of hell I went through . . . . I don't believe hell could be any worse."
It's not easy to talk now. She goes in spurts, bursts of words, a pause for breath, then more spurts. Her voice is screechy. Her mouth is missing a dozen or more teeth. Sometimes she sobs.
Her 64-year-old husband, Dean, taps his cane on the floor as he listens.
Street says she was happy, although poor, before Scottsboro, living with her mother in Huntsville and working in a mill as a teen-ager earning $1.10 a day. When she was about 16, she found a man. "Married?," she says. "I'd be lying to you. We were just living together."
It lasted about three weeks and the way it ended seemed to signal the beginning of harder times for her. "I had a gold watch," she recalled, "a pretty little thing my brother gave me one Christmas. I wouldn't wear it to the mill 'cause I thought someone would take it. Well, Mama put it in a pillow, you know, between the pillow slip and the pillow.
"Well, he seen Mama put it in there. He stole it. Then he bought whiskey with it. He done that that day and the next morning I throwed his clothes out in the yard."
That was the last she says she saw of him. Years later, she heard he was killed in a knife fight in New Orleans.
A few years later, the mill where she worked shut down. Victoria and Ruby were in search of work that day in March, 1931, when, in the style of those times and that region, she jumped aboard a railroad gondola car. The rest is a story she told over and over again on witness stands for nearly 10 years about how she and Ruby were raped by the blacks.
It is not clear how much she recalls spontaneously and how much of her recollection comes from having reviewed her testimony for the libel trial in 1977. Regardless, her story has not changed. Whatever she believed then, whatever actually happened then, she believes now, intensely, that what she said happened, happened. "I was tellin' the whole truth and nothin' but the truth . . . . I was stickin' to my race."
" . . . They jumped down over my head, over mine and Ruby's heads, slappin' and a-knockin' at us. I got up. I fought as long as I could. So one of 'em hit me up side the head." A white youth also on the train was the one who alerted authorities. "He told 'em there was colored boys rapin' two white girls," Street says.
She remembers the day Bates changed her story on the witness stand. "When she left the courthouse, they bystanders started throwing tomatoes at her. There was three bushels of tomatoes on her face, on her dress and down the front of her.
"I was standin' in the window watchin' and yellin' 'Hallelujah, Hallelujah.' "
(Ruby Bates later joined the international movement to free the Scottsboro Boys, traveling to demonstrations and getting her picture in the papers with leaders of the movement.)
After the trials ended, Street said, she and her mother left for nearby Tennessee to get away from all that had happened. "They the defense lawyers and supporters of the blacks made a public whore out of me, if I should say that word . . . .Mama said, 'You can live it down. The Lord will help you. C'mon, baby. Let's go to Tennessee.' Mama always called me 'baby.' "
In all the years that followed, she says, virtually no one mentioned Scottsboro to her.
There were two husbands in the years after the trials. The first marriage lasted two days, she said. "I married him one day and the law came and got him the next."
"He was messed up with a disease," she says, gesturing toward the pelvic region. "The doctors wouldn't let him live with me."
Then, 27 years ago, came Dean Street. She met him while visiting his cousin nearby. "I looked up and saw him comin' on his horse. He had a beautiful horse. So we said come on in. We got to talkin' and went together for about a year and then he married me.
"I told him about it. And he told me. He says, 'Hon, it makes no difference. You couldn't help it. I love you and you love me and I want you to marry me.' "
Raymond Fraley, 39, runs a busy one-man law practice across from the county courthouse in Fayetteville, population 12,000. A former athlete at Groveton High School in Alexandria, Va., he has been successful here, handling divorces, criminal defense work and drunken driving cases. He recently won a major settlement with an auto manufacturer after a car crash nearby, a case that gave him a name far beyond Fayetteville.
He lives a bachelor life, surrounded by Oriental art, and drives a Mercedes Benz, maybe the only one in Fayetteville.
His reputation, he says, is as "a screamer and a hollerer" in the courtroom, a "son of a bitch."
Fraley had watched about 15 minutes of the NBC program at a friend's house. A few days later, he says, a woman came to his office and said: " 'Does the name Victoria Price mean anything to you?' "
"For a moment," Fraley said, "it didn't mean anything. Then I said 'But they said you were dead.' "
" 'Do I look dead?' " he said she responded.
" 'No ma'am,' " said Fraley. " 'You don't.' "
Together, the tenant farmer and the small-town lawyer took on NBC television. They went to trial, replaying the events of the 1930s. But the U.S. District Court judge would not allow the jury to reach a verdict because he said that Street had not shown negligence on the part of NBC. The same thing happened in the appeals court.
By the time the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last fall, the legal controversy revolved around the definition of "public figures." Someone deemed a public figure by a court in a libel case must prove that a news organization published false material knowing that it was false or seriously doubting its truth. That is a heavy burden, and public figures generally lose libel cases.
A non-public plaintiff has to show only that the broadcaster or publisher made insufficient effort to determine the truth.
Victoria Price was undoubtedly a public figure in 1931. The question for the Supreme Court--one that the televison network was not eager to have it decide--was whether, once having had that status, she retains it forever.