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'When They See Us:' Central Park Five vs. Scottsboro Boys



Photo: ACLUSoCal.org


By Fernando Rover Jr.

History is like a pendulum.  It swings back and forth between narratives and many times those narratives swing back around.

​No other metaphor rings true than looking at African American history. Then and now, experiences are reborn and relived through perpetual rhetoric in America. From Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin- both teenage Black boys, both visiting relatives when killed, both posthumously villainized and sparked a movement.

Despite their experiences being fifty years apart, how their deaths left Black America has not changed.

That is what makes discussing Central Park Five so important and so painful.

On May 31st Academy Award nominated director Ava DuVernay released her critically acclaimed miniseries When They See Us. The multi-part miniseries tracks the story of the five young Black boys in New York who were accused of gang raping a white woman jogging through Central Park. From the first accusation, to imprisonment, to release, and finally, acquittal, DuVernay assures that we witness the psychological impact this had on these boys beyond social and cultural persecution.

Much of the reception surrounding When They See Us has been strong and controversial. Many having to take breaks when viewing the series and many news outlets voicing their support of the avant-garde director taking on such difficult subject matter. The 46-year-old California native is no stranger to such subject matter, having created films on topics such as the March on Selma and the 13th Amendment and Mass Incarceration.

Upon viewing and learning about Central Park Five, it becomes necessary to revisit the story of the Scottsboro Boys.

In 1931, nine African American boys ranging from ages 13 to 20 were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. No other evidence, other than the women’s testimony, was used to show these Black boys were guilty of such a heinous crime. Beyond the crime and trial, the Scottsboro Boys were stripped of their humanity and were not given a fair trial, despite being American citizens.

The similarities between Scottsboro Boys and Central Park Five is not one of coincidence. It is one of African American experiences in a perpetual context. Much conversations surrounding the miniseries have been about how so many years later, after the impact of being falsely accused had on the five boys, this story is still relevant? What does this say about the Scottsboro Boys case in which many of them were given 75-99 years in prison and dying before receiving any recognition?

One thing that still stands. History, like a pendulum, swings back and forth between narratives. Which direction will the narrative swing next?

This article originally appeared in the San Antonio Observer.

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