By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
History has been made in our town once again, due to the fact that a statue has been erected in honor of a timelessly courageous man, Judge James Edwin Horton, Jr. For me personally, the irony is great that in an era when it has become politically fashionable to move controversial stone and/or metal historical figures out of sight so as not to “offend,” under the inspiration of Judge Jimmy Woodruff and others, we in Limestone County have put in plain and permanent view a life-sized reminder of a man who in his day was the embodiment of controversy as well as courage.
I began to learn about the Scottsboro Boys case in my seventh-grade social studies class in the mid-‘60s in Seattle, but I knew nothing about the man who fought for the falsely accused defendants from the bench despite great physical and personal peril. I just knew from my textbook that justice had prevailed, and as a 12-year-old, I was glad. I didn’t know for nearly 15 years after we moved here in 2000, that it was in our courthouse that “justice rolled down like waters,” as the book of Amos enjoins. This was because the historical narrative implied that everything was settled in Scottsboro, and there was no mention of the fact that this battle was fought all over North Alabama in the circuit court system, it just mentioned that it had gone on up to the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
I have told the story often that it wasn’t until I was attending a political victory reception upstairs in the courtroom where it all occurred, that I happened to notice a small brass historical plaque memorializing the decision, and was happily stunned to consider that just a few feet away from me, history had been altered. Judge Horton proved for generations that the pen was clearly mightier than the sword. When he stood outside atop the courthouse stairs to deliver his decision to the citizens of Athens and Limestone County, one of the most important legal decisions in American history powerfully rolled down the staircase and out around the world.
Horton’s family was on hand for the dedication of the statue, as they were in June of 2016 when we celebrated Judge Horton Day, and the fundraising project was kicked off. The kids and grandkids told happy tales about His Honor, a consummate gentleman and storyteller who effectively reinvented himself. It is said that Judge Horton never had to struggle for a moment with his decision; it was a clear case of right and wrong. He had the integrity to do right and suffer the consequences, when lynching would have been considered just.
Overturning the wrongful conviction of Haywood Patterson was the end of Horton’s judicial career, and undeterred, he literally picked up his antebellum house which was then located on what is the current site of the Athens City Hall, dismantled it, moved it to Greenbrier, put the house back together, and raised cattle. The house is still standing, the effect of his life is still being felt, and now when visitors to Athens point to the statue and ask, “Who was this guy?” we can all, young and old, black, white, brown, red, yellow, male and female proudly say, “Well, once upon a time there was a man named Judge James Horton…”
My deep thanks to Judge Jimmy Woodruff, Archivist Rebecca Davis, and all who gave in any way to bring us this day. I will never forget it.