By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
On June 22, it will have been 86 years since born-and-bred Limestone County resident and Circuit Court Judge James E. Horton, Jr. made one of the most important decisions in the history of American law. He set aside a murder conviction couched in unabashed racism, and sounded one of the first trumpets to signal the death of Jim Crow.
I have stated many times that I grew up learning about the Scottsboro Boys’ case in early ‘60s Seattle public education, but I had assumed that the entire matter had occurred as well as had been tried in Scottsboro, not Athens. One day while attending a reception in the southwest second floor of the Limestone County Courthouse, I saw a tiny historical plaque on the wall commemorating the decision. In my surprise I nearly spat out my strawberry, and as an adopted Athenian, I swelled up with what I trust was reasonable pride to be living in the same town where a man demonstrated that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. Speaking of pens, Judge Horton kept all the Scottsboro memorabilia in a lard bucket, including the pen he used to change history.
Judge Jimmy Woodruff, Limestone County Archivist Rebekah Davis, and others began to raise funds to have a statue of Judge Horton commissioned to stand at the foot of the steps of the courtroom where it all happened, and in October of 2017, it was unveiled.
In December of 2018, President Trump signed a bill approving the naming of our Athens United States Postal Service office on West Market Street after Judge Horton. Again, several Athens residents as well as Congressman Mo Brooks worked to bring the bill regarding the Horton history to the U.S. House floor, and then on to the Oval Office where such an honor could be signed into law.
In April of 2019, I had the privilege of attending the re-naming ceremony held outside the post office. There, several speakers, including Congressman, recounted the history of the case and celebrated Horton’s courage. Young and old, blacks, whites, the Horton family, and several officials listened on a day that was unseasonably warm. The plaque was unveiled, the band played, and all in all it was a great day in Athens, Alabama.
The plaque that documents the name change is up above the counter where one sorts one’s mail collected from one’s post office box. But my favorite feature is a plaque with a picture of His Honor which is literally and happily “in your face” every time you put a piece of mail in the outbox on the wall. Each time I read it, I am inspired all over again. It says, in part, “The world at this time and in many lands is showing intolerance and hate. It seems sometimes that love has almost deserted the human bosom. It seems that only hate has taken its place. It is only for a time gentlemen, because it is the great things in life, God’s great principles, matters of eternal right, that alone live. Wrong dies and truth forever lasts, and we should have faith in that.’” Fitting words, these, and they could not be more timely. Happy Judge Horton Day, dear Athenians!