Notable: Court Trials
In 1931, America was in the depths of the Great Depression and many people had taken to illegally riding in freight cars as they searched for work. On March 25, 1931, young Black and White passengers began fighting aboard a freight train as it passed through Jackson County, Alabama. It’s believed that the altercation began when a White boy stepped on the hand of a Black boy which led to others joining in the fray. The White boys were eventually forced off the train and fabricated a story in retaliation to get the police involved.
When the train made its next stop at Paint Rock, the local police were waiting and arrested nine Black young men ranging in age from 12 to 19 who were still on the train. Two White women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, were also aboard the train and accused the teens of rape when they were questioned by police. Some sources state that the women accused the teens in an attempt to avoid facing vagrancy and morality charges. While other sources state that the women were pressured to give false statements by the police.
The nine Black teens—Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andrew and Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, and Eugene Williams—were transported and held in nearby Scottsboro. Before the incident, only four of the nine boys—the Wright brothers, Patterson, and Williams—knew each other and had been traveling together.
Given the time and with this being the deep Jim Crow South, an accusation of a group of Black men raping two White women was incredibly scandalous. Often, Black suspects in crimes (and sometimes those who were merely accused) were lynched before ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Thus to prevent the Scottsboro Boys from being lynched, the sheriff called in the Alabama National Guard to protect them from a White mob that had gathered outside the jail.
Within days the Scottsboro Boys were arraigned and put on trial for rape which given the circumstances carried a death sentence. Due to this being a death penalty case, the young men were entitled to but did not have legal representation until the morning the trial was set to begin. Two attorneys volunteered to represent the boys but given the short notice did not have enough time to confer with their clients or prepare a vigorous defense. Also, neither lawyer was qualified to represent defendants in a death penalty case as one specialized in Tennessee real estate and the other had not participated in a jury trial in several years.
In court, the defense attorneys failed to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses and did not attempt to poke holes in the validity of their evidence. Thus within two weeks of being accused of rape, the Scottsboro Boys were charged, tried, and convicted by all-White all-male juries in trials that took place over four days. Leroy Wright, the youngest in the group, was sentenced to life in prison following a hung jury and mistrial. The other eight boys were sentenced to death with their executions scheduled for the earliest date possible.
As news of the verdict spread, people were outraged by what came to be seen as an obvious miscarriage of justice and a prime example of institutional racism. The International Labor Defense (ILD) volunteered to represent the boys in part to launch a national fight against racism and to increase the visibility of the ideologies of its parent organization, the American Communist Party. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), eventually became involved but was initially apprehensive because of its uncertainty of the defendants’ innocence.
Over the next seven years, the ILD would wage war against the wrongful convictions in Alabama courtrooms, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the media. In 1932’s Powell v. Alabama, the Supreme Court overturned the Alabama state verdicts following a ruling that the defendants had not been afforded due process as they’d been denied their right to adequate counsel. When the cases returned to Alabama for additional rounds of new trials, Patterson and Norris were again convicted by all-White juries. This occurred even after one of the accusers recanted her original testimony and evidence from the original medical examinations disputed the rape accusations.
In 1935’s Norris v. Alabama the Supreme Court again overturned the Alabama state verdicts following a ruling that the defendants had not been tried by a jury of their peers. Alabama’s jury rolls did not include Blacks in any meaningful way so the ruling would lend assistance to future pushes for integrated juries.
Additional trials and convictions took place but the defense and prosecutors eventually negotiated a deal. Charges were dropped and four of the defendants were released (Montgomery, Roberson, Williams, and Leroy Wright). The four convicted defendants (Weems, Norris, Powell, and Andy Wright) were sentenced to several years to life in prison but were eventually released on parole. Patterson had escaped from prison in 1948 and was later convicted of manslaughter in an unrelated case.
Arrested as youths, many of the Scottsboro Boys faced great difficulties following their release from prison. Clarence Norris was the last survivor of the Scottsboro Boys despite dying at only 76-years-old in 1989. He had been pardoned by the governor of Alabama only 13 years earlier. In 2013, 82 years after the Scottsboro tragedy began, Patterson, Weems and Andy Wright were posthumously pardoned by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.
- “ACLU History: Scottsboro Boys.” 2010. ACLU. American Civil Liberties Union. September 1, 2010. https://www.aclu.org/other/aclu-history-scottsboro-boys.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. “Scottsboro Case.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. February 28, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/Scottsboro-case.
- History.com Editors. 2018. “Scottsboro Boys.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. February 22, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/scottsboro-boys.
- Kindig, Jessie. 2019. “Scottsboro Boys Trial and Defense Campaign (1931–1937).” BlackPast.org. July 21, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/scottsboro-boys-trial-and-defense-campaign-1931-1937/.
- Salter, Daren. 2017. “Scottsboro Trials.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. Alabama Humanities Foundation. December 6, 2017. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1456.
- “Who Were the Scottsboro Boys?” n.d. PBS. WGBH Educational Foundation. Accessed July 17, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/scottsboro-boys-who-were-the-boys/.
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