GEORGE KENNEDY: At long last, a hopeful ending to the James Scott travesty

Thursday, May 5, 2011 | 1:17 p.m. CDT; updated 8:51 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 16, 2011

It’s never too late to do the right thing.

We were reminded of that last Saturday by the ceremony that led to the dedication of a long-overdue monument at the grave of James T. Scott.

Mr. Scott lived as a community leader, a husband, a father and a soldier. He died the victim of Columbia’s last lynching, April 29, 1923.

When I walked up to the Second Baptist Church a few minutes before noon Saturday, I was expecting something low-key and probably sparsely attended. I should have known better. This was, after all, a Clyde Ruffin production.

I suspect that, like me, most of you know Professor Ruffin as an MU professor of theater. His most recent directing triumph at the Rhynsburger Theatre was this spring’s “Fences,” which I thought was one of the best plays I’ve seen there. Saturday’s production, which he also directed in his more recent role as minister of Second Baptist and chair of the James T. Scott Monument Committee, was even more powerful.

By now, everyone surely knows the story of James Scott’s death. The 14-year-old daughter of Professor Hermann Almstedt was assaulted in a ravine near the MKT railroad track. Police rounded up several black men who fit her general description of the assailant. She identified James Scott, the happily married father of a teenage daughter and a janitor at the university. He was jailed on a charge of attempted rape. The mob broke into the jail, dragged him to the Stewart Road bridge and hanged him. Professor Almstedt and a young journalism student named Charles Nutter tried in vain to save him.

When local businessman George Barkwell was indicted for Mr. Scott’s murder, Mr. Nutter was the chief prosecution witness. The jury took just 11 minutes to find the defendant not guilty.

Years later, Mr. Nutter told another Missourian reporter: “There were 100 people who saw what I saw that night. I was the only one who didn’t perjure myself.” After the trial, his classmates escorted Mr. Nutter to the train as he fled for his own safety. He later returned to graduate and went on to a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent.

Eighty-eight years and one day after the lynching, on the finest day of the spring so far, several hundred of us crammed into the church Mr. Scott once attended to hear speakers celebrate his life and the courage of Mr. Nutter, Professor Almstedt and the Rev. Jonathan Caston, in 1923 the minister of what was then the Broadway Baptist Church. Rev. Caston had hired a lawyer for Mr. Scott and at great risk spoke out against the lynching.

From the church, we followed the Hazelwood Central High School band, in the tradition of a New Orleans jazz funeral parade, up the hill and through the Columbia Cemetery to the far southeast corner, the “colored section,” where Mr. Scott lies a few yards from the small stone marking the grave of Cpl. Joel Williams, who served in the 62nd United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War.

Mr. Scott’s handsome new monument was dedicated with military honors, which I doubt Cpl. Williams received. Once Rev. Ruffin had accepted the flag and concluded the service, I went over to read the words engraved on the back of the monument.

The last sentence describes it as “a symbol of our commitment to a future in which people of all races will live together in peace and receive the fundamental rights of equal justice under the law.”

Columbia’s darkest hour has given way to its brightest hope.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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