The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. The trials and repeated retrials of the Scottsboro Boys sparked an international uproar and produced two landmark U.S. Supreme Court verdicts, even as the defendants were forced to spend years battling the courts and enduring the harsh conditions of the Alabama prison system.
WHO WERE THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS?
By the early 1930s, with the nation mired in the Great Depression, many unemployed Americans would try and hitch rides aboard freight trains to move around the country searching for work.
On March 25, 1931, after a fight broke out on a Southern Railroad freight train in Jackson County, Alabama, police arrested nine black youths, ranging in age from 13 to 19, on a minor charge. But when deputies questioned two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, they accused the boys of raping them while onboard the train.
The nine teenagers—Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andrew and Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson and Eugene Williams—were transferred to the local county seat, Scottsboro, to await trial.
Only four of them had known each other before their arrest. As news spread of the alleged rape (a highly inflammatory charge given the Jim Crow laws in the South), an angry white mob surrounded the jail, leading the local sheriff to call in the Alabama National Guard to prevent a lynching.
INITIAL TRIALS AND APPEALS (1931-32)
In the first set of trials in April 1931, an all-white, all-male jury quickly convicted the Scottsboro Boys and sentenced eight of them to death.
The trial of the youngest, 13-year-old Leroy Wright, ended in a hung jury when one juror favored life imprisonment rather than death. A mistrial was declared, and Leroy Wright would remain in prison until 1937 awaiting the final verdict on his co-defendants.
At this point, the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal wing of the American Communist Party, took on the boys’ case, seeing its potential to galvanize public opinion against racism. That June, the court granted the boys a stay of execution pending an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.
The ILD spearheaded a national campaign to help free the nine young men, including rallies, speeches, parades and demonstrations, and letters streamed in from people—Communists and non-Communists, white and black—protesting the guilty verdicts.
But in March 1932, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions of seven of the defendants; it granted Williams a new trial, as he was a minor at the time of his conviction.
POWELL V. ALABAMA
In November 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. Alabama that the Scottsboro defendants had been denied the right to counsel, which violated their right to due process under the 14th Amendment.
The Supreme Court overturned the Alabama verdicts, setting an important legal precedent for enforcing the right of African Americans to adequate counsel, and remanded the cases to the lower courts.
The second round of trials began in the circuit court in Decatur, Alabama, 50 miles west of Scottsboro, under Judge James Horton. One of the boys’ accusers, Ruby Bates, recanted her initial testimony and agreed to testify for the defense.
But even with her testimony and evidence from the initial medical examination of the women that refuted the rape charge, another all-white jury convicted the first defendant, Patterson, and recommended the death penalty.
Having reviewed the evidence and met privately with one of the medical examiners, Judge Horton suspended the death sentence and granted Patterson a new trial. (The judge would be rewarded for this brave action by losing his bid for reelection the following year.)
Prosecutors got the cases in front of a more sympathetic judge, and both Patterson and Norris were retried, convicted and sentenced to death in late 1933. With prominent defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz arguing the case for the ILD, the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously denied the defense’s motion for new trials, and the case headed for a second hearing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
NORRIS V. ALABAMA
In January 1935, the Supreme Court again overturned the guilty verdicts, ruling in Norris v. Alabama that the systematic exclusion of blacks on Jackson Country jury rolls denied a fair trial to the defendants, and suggesting that the lower courts review Patterson’s case as well.
This second landmark decision in the Scottsboro Boys case would help integrate future juries across the nation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights groups joined the ILD that year to form the Scottsboro Defense Committee, which reorganized the defense effort for the next set of retrials.
Early in 1936, Patterson was convicted for a fourth time, but sentenced to 75 years in prison. The day after the verdict, Ozie Powell was shot in the head after attacking a deputy sheriff with a knife; both men survived.
After the Alabama Supreme Court upheld Patterson’s conviction in June, and Norris’s third trial ended in another death sentence, Andy Wright and Weems were both convicted of rape and long prison sentences as well.
Through negotiations with the defense, prosecutors agreed to drop rape charges against Powell, but he was convicted of assaulting the deputy sheriff and sentenced to 20 years.
They also dropped rape charges against the four remaining defendants—Montgomery, Roberson, Williams and Leroy Wright—and all four were released. Alabama Governor Bibb Graves commuted Norris’ sentence to life imprisonment in 1938, and denied pardon applications by all five convicted defendants that same year.
SCOTTSBORO BOYS LEGACY
Alabama officials eventually agreed to let four of the convicted Scottsboro Boys—Weems, Andy Wright, Norris and Powell—out on parole.
After escaping from prison in 1948, Patterson was picked up in Detroit by the FBI, but the Michigan governor refused Alabama’s efforts to extradite him. Convicted of manslaughter after a barroom brawl in 1951, Patterson died of cancer in 1952.
The trials of the Scottboro Boys, the two Supreme Court verdicts they produced and the international uproar over their treatment helped fuel the rise of the civil rights movement later in the 20th century, and left a lasting imprint on the nation’s legal and cultural landscape.
Harper Lee reportedly drew on the boys’ experience when she wrote her classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and over the years the case has inspired numerous other books, songs, feature films, documentaries and even a Broadway musical.
Clarence Norris, who received a pardon from Governor George Wallace of Alabama in 1976, would outlive all of the other Scottsboro Boys, dying in 1989 at the age of 76.
In 2013, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to issue posthumous pardons to Patterson, Weems and Andy Wright, bringing a long-overdue end to one of the most notorious cases of racial injustice in U.S. history.
Daren Salter, Scottsboro Trials, Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, PBS.
History, Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.
Alan Blinder, “Alabama Pardons 3 ‘Scottsboro Boys’ After 80 Years,” New York Times, November 21, 2013.