The Scottsboro Boy’s Case

In 1931 nine black youths between the ages of 13 to 19 were pulled from a train, arrested and taken to nearby Scottsboro, Alabama, where they were jailed, tried and declared guilty of raping two white women — a crime that never occurred. An all-white, male jury quickly sentenced eight to death. A long-term and ultimately successful campaign to save the youths’ lives and, in time, exonerate them led to one of the most dramatic and revealing civil rights struggles in U.S. history.

Scottsboro Boys Jackson County Courthouse

A crowd gathers on one side of the courthouse square in Scottsboro during the trials.

 

 

 

Train ride to tragedy

With the Great Depression gripping the nation after the stock-market crash of 1929, people hopped freight trains to travel from one city to the next in search of work. A fight between blacks and whites broke out on a train in Jackson County on March 25, 1931. Trying to avoid arrest, two women on the train falsely accused nine black youths of raping them. It was an inflammatory allegation in the Jim-Crow South, where many whites were attempting to preserve supremacy just 66 years after the end of the Civil War.

The Scottsboro Boys with defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz in the Decatur, Alabama, jail (1933). Haywood Patterson is sitting with Leibowitz. Behind them, left to right, are: Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems and Roy Wright.

The accused were shackled and taken to Scottsboro, the Jackson County seat, and an angry mob gathered for their trials just two weeks after the arrests. On April 9, a judge sentenced the eight convicted defendants to death by electrocution. He declared a mistrial in the case of the youngest defendant, 13-year-old Roy Wright, after seven jurors insisted on the death penalty even though the prosecution had not sought it.

Miscarriage of justice

After the U.S. Supreme Court overrode the lower court’s verdict in 1932 on grounds of inadequate counsel, Circuit Judge James E. Horton was appointed to preside over a new set of trials in Decatur, Alabama, 50 miles west of Scottsboro. But after Horton suspended the jury’s death sentence for Haywood Patterson, the first youth tried in Decatur, and called for a new trial, the Alabama Supreme Court took him off the case. As a messenger from the Alabama attorney general’s office had warned, Horton lost his re-election bid in 1934. Decades later Horton maintained he had no regrets, invoking what he said was a hundred-year tradition in his family summed up by a Latin phrase that translates to “Let justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

Judge Horton Scottsboro Boys

Judge James E. Horton listens to the testimony of Dr. R. R. Bridges during Haywood Patterson’s second trial in Decatur, Alabama

Despite defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz’s presentation of strong evidence alleged victims Victoria Price and Ruby Bates fabricated the rape story to avoid being charged with vagrancy and prostitution and Bates’ own testimony that she and Price made up the story, white male juries in Alabama refused to accept the retraction and state officials continued the legal persecution of the Scottsboro Boys another four years. Simultaneously, a series of defense appeals kept the case alive as rallies and parades in support of the youths took place in cities around the globe and citizen groups — including one comprised of white Alabamians in Birmingham — formed to promote the boys’ cause. With media reports publicizing the legal proceedings, including a second U.S. Supreme Court hearing, the eyes of the nation and the world were on Alabama.

Free at last

Scottsboro Boys Freed

Left to right, Scottsboro Boys Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson and Roy Wright with Samuel Leibowitz in Nashville the day after their release, July 25, 1937.

Eventually all nine Scottsboro Boys were paroled, freed or pardoned. Each spent at least six years in prison, some much longer. Andrew Wright was the last to go free, in 1950.

Read a more detailed account of the trials.

 

The Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement

During the seven years in which the Scottsboro Boys case made its way through the state and federal judicial system, it became an encapsulation of the American South’s troubled post-Reconstruction history of racial violence, the social and political upheaval of the Great Depression and the lingering cultural divide between North and South. In the process, the saga in many ways inaugurated the modern civil rights movement.*
*Partially excerpted from the Encyclopedia of Alabama, article by Daren Salter

Legal Precedents

The Scottsboro Boys’ case is recognized internationally as one of the most infamous in legal history. The U.S. Supreme Court twice heard arguments in the case, leading to two landmark civil-rights precedents regarding:

  • The right to counsel – The Court ruled the defendants were denied the right to effective counsel in their first trial when the judge named all members of the Jackson County bar to defend them, effectively diffusing final responsibility for their case. (Patterson vs. Alabama, 1932)
  • Nondiscrimination in juror rolls – Because Jackson County juror rolls excluded blacks, the Court ruled the defendants had not received equal protection under the law. (Norris vs. Alabama, 1935)

Artistic and Cultural Influence

The Scottsboro Boys case is widely believed to have been an inspiration for Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 1930s the boys’ struggle also prompted a host of songs, dramas, artwork and poetry around the world.
The saga has continued to inspire artists in the decades since, and the Scottsboro Boys story lives on today through the efforts of artists and scholars. The Scottsboro Boys, an original musical featuring songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb and a book by David Thompson, is set to open on Broadway in October, 2010, after extended runs at New York City’s Vineyard Theatre and Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The cast recorded an album featuring songs from the musical in April 2010. The musical won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical.
Leadbelly recorded a song, “The Scottsboro Boys”. Dan T. Carter published his award-winning book, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, in 1970. A movie, Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, aired on NBC in 1976. James Goodman published Stories of Scottsboro, a recounting of the Scottsboro tragedy from multiple perspectives, in 1994, and a PBS documentary, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, was released in 2000.
An exhibit called ‘Outside the Protective Circle of Humanity’ was authored by Carol Cook Puckett (Southern Literary Trail) and Dr. Dan Carter. The collection of photographs from Fred Hiroshige the famous Decatur Trial came to light in 2003 when the collection was purchased from the photographer’s estate by the Morgan County Commission. Two exhibits were created, one is available to travel around the country. It’s visited school’s & galleries across the country and a copy of the exhibit is permanently on display at the Morgan County Archives in Decatur Alabama.

Dr. Ellen Griffith Spears

Dr. Spears teaches environmental and Civil Rights History in the interdisciplinary New College program and the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. Her book, Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2014, recounts the struggles over chemical pollution by residents of Anniston, Alabama. Additionally, she has guided UA student and faculty involvement in the Scottsboro Boys Museum University-Community Partnership.

Alabama Senator Arthur Orr

Breaking historical precedents, Alabama Legislature Arthur Orr was instrumental in passing the bill which allowed the parole board to issue posthumous pardons for old cases where the convictions involved racial discrimination in November of 2013. This pardon was passed specifically to pardon three of the once accused Scottsboro Boys, in a case that originated in 1931.

Dr. Thomas Reidy

Working with Senator Orr, Dr. Reidy was instrumental in assisting with the legislation that pardoned the Scottsboro Boys. One of the most significant pieces he’s written on the trial is called “Awaiting Justice” and can be found in the Alabama Heritage Magazine from the summer of 2012. The article tells the story of Clarence Norris, decades after his imprisonment and subsequent exoneration.

Representative John Robinson

Instrumental in for passing the resolution bill HJR20 in April of 2013, which was the legislation responsible for exonerating all nine boys who were falsely accused of rape in 1931. Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Andy Wright, Roy Wright, and Eugene Williams, commonly known as The Scottsboro Boys.

Professor John Miller

Assistant Director of New College & Professor at The University of Alabama, John Miller was responsible for writing the language for resolution HJR20, which was the bill responsible for exonerating all nine Scottsboro Boy’s.

Shelia Washington

Beginning in 1969, with the publication of Dan Carter’s definitive account of the trials, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, scholars wrote about the importance of the cases, but very little was done to preserve the history. That remained true until Shelia Washington, who grew up in Scottsboro in an African American neighborhood not far from the railroad tracks that carried the defendants to their fate, began a campaign to lift up their memory. Washington dates her interest in the cases to the day her father snatched a book she was reading out of her hand. The forbidden book called Haywood Patterson’s Scottsboro Boy. Curiosity prevailed which has led her on a lifelong journey to preserve the history & legacy of the Scottsboro Boy’s for generations to come and she now serves as Museum Director & Curator.