14 For African Americans there was no justice in southern courts.
Lawrence focuses on the unfair arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of African Americans in Southern courts in Panel 14. The white judge looks down at the shadowy outlines of the two defendents as his verdict comes to pass. Many instances of injustice against African American men had made news in the early to mid 1900s, such as the Scottsboro Trial; but here, as in other panels, Lawrence depicts the general theme of racism and bias faced by so many Southern blacks, making a universal appeal for equality and justice for all.
Lawrence’s contemporary Ben Shahn (1898–1969) was also passionate about the prejudice against minorities, which persisted even in the North. However, in The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, Shahn utilizes a specific instance of injustice to shed light on the wider issues of discrimination. The painting is one in a series of 23 that focuses on the trial of Italian-American immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who in 1927 were sentenced to death and later executed for armed robbery and the murder of a paymaster and guard at a shoe factory in Massachusetts. The incident caused international outrage as many believed the case against them was weak and that they were the victims of ethnic discrimination and a corrupt police investigation. In his work, Shahn portrays Sacco and Vanzetti lying dead in their coffins with the commissioners who upheld the death sentence after years of appeal standing over their corpses. Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the trial, is shown taking an oath in the courthouse in the background, likely a statement on his apparent neglect of his oath of office during the trial.