The Scottsboro Trials: 1931-37
The Scottsboro Trials: 1931-37
Defendants: Olin Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Eugene Williams, Andy Wright, and Roy Wright
Crime Charged: Rape
Chief Defense Lawyers: Joseph Brodsky, George W. Chamlee, Samuel S. Leibowitz, Milo Moody, Stephen R. Roddy, and Clarence Watts
Chief Prosecutors: H. G. Bailey, Melvin Hutson, Thomas G. Knight, Jr., Thomas Lawson, and Wade Wright
Judges: Alfred E. Hawkins, James Edwin Horton, Jr., and William Washington Callahan
Places: Scottsboro, Alabama; Decatur, Alabama
Dates of Trials: April 6-9, 1931; March 27-April 9, 1933; November 20-December 6, 1933; January 20-24, 1936; July 12-24, 1937
Verdicts: All but Roy Wright: Guilty; Roy Wright: Mistrial
Sentences: Death by electrocution, later reduced
SIGNIFICANCE: No one knows how many cases like Scottsboro occurred in Southern states before this one—with its large number of defendants, their youth, their brief and almost cursory trials and severe sentences—demanded national attention. The trials, and their appeals, gave America lessons in the procedures of Southern courts, the opportunism of American communists, the prejudice in the South, and the hypocrisy among Southern whites.
On a March morning in 1931, seven bedraggled white youths appeared in a railroad station master's office in northern Alabama and announced that, while riding as hobos, they had been thrown off a freight train by a "bunch of Negroes" who picked a fight. The station master phoned ahead and, near Scottsboro, a deputy sheriff deputized every man who owned a gun. When the train stopped, the posse rounded up nine black boys and two white girls—the latter dressed in men's caps and overalls.
While the white girls chatted with townspeople, the deputy sheriff tied the blacks together and quizzed them. Five were from Georgia. At 20, Charlie Weems was the eldest. Clarence Norris was 19, Ozie Powell, 16. Olin Montgomery, 17, looked "sleepy-eyed," for he was blind in one eye and had only 10 percent vision in the other. Willie Roberson, 17, suffering from syphilis and gonorrhea, walked unsteadily with a cane. Four were from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Haywood Patterson and Andy Wright were 19. Eugene Williams was 13. And Wright's brother Roy was 12.
When the deputy sheriff had loaded his prisoners onto an open truck, one of the girls, Ruby Bates, from Huntsville, Alabama, told him that she and her friend Victoria Price had been raped by the nine blacks.
In Scottsboro, the sheriff sent the women off to be examined by two doctors. Meantime, word of the rape charge spread through Jackson County. By nightfall, a mob of several hundred, promising to lynch the prisoners, stood before the little jail. The sheriff, barricaded with 21 deputies, phoned the governor. But by the time 25 National Guardsmen arrived, the mob had cooled down and most people had drifted away.
As the trial began on April 6, 1931, 102 guardsmen held a crowd of several thousand at a distance of 100 feet from the courthouse.
Ready to appoint defense counsel, Judge Alfred E. Hawkins offered the job to any lawyer in the county who would take it. He accepted Chattanooga attorney Stephen R. Roddy, who admitted he didn't know Alabama law, when local attorney Milo Moody offered to help. Roddy, who had a jail record for drunkenness, was already inebriated at 9:00 a.m.
Circuit Solicitor H.G. Bailey tried Weems and Norris first. Victoria Price described how she and Ruby Bates had hopped freight trains to Chattanooga to look for jobs and, finding none, were returning when the black boys, after throwing the whites off the train, turned on them. She described how she was "beaten up" and "bruised up" by rape after rape, then "lost consciousness" and next found herself on her way to the jail in Scottsboro.
Dr. R.R. Bridges testified he saw no evidence of violence when he examined the girls. Victoria Price, he said, "was not lacerated at all. She was not bloody, neither was the other girl." A second doctor agreed that while both girls showed evidence of recent sexual intercourse, the semen found was "nonmotile," or inactive, whereas semen is normally viable for 12 to 48 hours.
By Thursday afternoon, all defendants except 12-year-old Roy Wright had been found guilty. Because of his age, the state had asked for life imprisonment for him, but the jury was deadlocked—seven jurors insisted on death. The judge declared a mistrial for Roy Wright and sentenced the eight others to electrocution.
"Legal Lynching … Victims of 'Capitalist Justice"
Liberals and radicals nationwide reacted. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the United States called the sentences "legal lynching" of "the victims of'capitalist justice.'" Its International Labor Defense (ILD) wing pushed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to cooperate on taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Harlem, 300,000 blacks and whites marched to the slogan "the Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die."
The ILD hired prominent Chattanooga attorney George W. Chamlee. Requesting a new trial, he and the ILD's chief lawyer, Joseph Brodsky, produced affidavits from Chattanooga blacks stating that they had seen Victoria Price "embracing Negro men in dances in Negro houses," that Ruby Bates had bragged that she could "take five Negroes in one night," that a boarding-house operator had let Victoria use a room for prostitution, that she turned down a white man one night because it was "Negro night." The local press denounced the statements as slander, but a Huntsville detective confirmed that the girls were prostitutes.
"You Can't Mix Politics with Law"
The motion for a new trial was denied. The defendants switched allegiance constantly from the NAACP to the ILD and back again. Prominent attorney Clarence Darrow declined the NAACP's request that he steer the case through the Supreme Court. "You can't mix politics with law," he said, adding that the cases would have to be won in Alabama, "not in Russia or New York." The NAACP then withdrew its support.
In March, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions of all except Eugene Williams; as a juvenile, he was granted a new trial.
In November, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the seven boys had been denied "due process" under the Fourteenth Amendment when Judge Hawkins treated the appointment of defense counsel so casually.
As the state ordered a new trial, the ILD turned to Samuel Leibowitz, a noted criminal lawyer in New York. He argued successfully for a change of venue to Decatur, Alabama, where townspeople welcomed the reporters, and Western Union brought in extra operators.
Haywood Patterson was tried first. Leibowitz produced several revelations: Ruby Bates recanted, saying she and Price had invented the rape story to avoid arrest for vagrancy (but she damaged her credibility by testifying in smart "New York clothes" bought for her by the ILD during a trip they provided to the big city); the boys had been seized from several points all over the 42-car train; Willie Roberson's painful, raging syphilis made him incapable of sexual activity; Olin Montgomery's blindness was equally limiting; and Victoria Price, who was married, had served time for adultery and fornication.
After Dr. Bridges repeated his testimony that the girls had not been raped, the second doctor—Marvin Lynch—spoke privately with Judge James Edward Horton during a recess. "I told the women they were lying, that they knew they had not been raped," said the doctor, "and they just laughed at me." But, he added, if he testified for the boys, "I'd never be able to go back into Jackson County." The judge, believing the defense would prove Patterson's innocence, said nothing.
Defense attorney Leibowitz himself now lived with National Guard protection against threats of lynching. County Solicitor Wade Wright added to the incendiary atmosphere: "Show them," he told the jury, "that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York."
The jury found Patterson guilty. The sentence: death. When the defense filed a motion for a new trial, Judge Horton reviewed the medical testimony about the women, the lack of physical evidence of sexual activity on the part of the boys, and the unreliable testimony of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. He set aside the jury's judgment and ordered a new trial. Then, under pressure from Attorney General Thomas Knight and the chief justice, he withdrew from the case.
"No More Picture Snappin' Around Here"
Opening the new trial, Judge William Washington Callahan, 70, dismissed the National Guard. Declaring, "There ain't going to be no more picture snappin' around here," he banned cameras inside or outside the courtroom. He dismissed Leibowitz's motion to quash the indictment because blacks had been systematically excluded from the jury lists—despite testimony by a handwriting expert that names had been fraudulently added to the jury book to make it appear that blacks were listed. He ran a 12-hour day in the courtroom. He destroyed Leibowitz's defense plan by refusing to permit testimony on Victoria Price's sexual activity during the two nights before the train ride. And when he made his charge to the jury, he told them any intercourse between a black man and a white woman was rape, but he omitted—until Leibowitz darted up to the bench and reminded him—the instructions on how to render an acquittal.
Again Patterson was found guilty and the sentence was death. Clarence Norris was next found guilty. But now Leibowitz faced an unexpected challenge: Two ILD lawyers were caught trying to bribe Victoria Price, who had hinted that money could help her change her story. Brodsky told Leibowitz the changed story would have been "good propaganda for the cause." Furious, Leibowitz announced he would withdraw "unless all Communists are removed from the defense." Brodsky capitulated.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions on the evidence of exclusion of blacks from jury duty. Alabama Governor Bibb Graves responded, "We must put the names of Negroes in jury boxes in every county."
In November 1935, a grand jury of 13 whites and one black brought new indictments. At the fourth trial, in January 1936, Patterson was again found guilty, with the sentence this time 75 years' imprisonment. "I'd rather die," he said.
The next trial was delayed until July 1937. Then Clarence Norris was found guilty and sentenced to death, followed by Andy Wright (99 years) and Charlie Weems (75 years). The rape charge against Ozie Powell was dropped when he pleaded guilty to stabbing a deputy sheriff (during a jail transfer) and received 20 years. Abruptly, prosecutor Thomas Lawson, who had succeeded Knight, proposed no / pros, or dropping of charges, for Olin Montgomery, Roy Wright, Willie Roberson, and Eugene Williams. The Scottsboro trials were over.
"All were Guilty or All Should be Freed"
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Patterson's conviction. Alabama Governor Bibb Graves listened to a clemency appeal and agreed that "all were guilty or all should be freed." He officially set a date to pardon all four, then reneged. While Graves said he changed his mind after personally interviewing the Scottsboro boys, those close to the governor said he realized public opinion had not changed and simply got cold feet.
Weems was freed in November 1943, Andy Wright and Clarence Norris in January 1944—but Wright and Norris broke parole by moving north and were sent back to prison. Wright was paroled again in 1950. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948 and was arrested in Detroit, but Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams refused to sign extradition papers; later convicted of manslaughter, Patterson died of cancer in prison in 1952. Norris, the last surviving Scottsboro boy, was pardoned at age 64 by Alabama Governor George C. Wallace in 1976.
Victoria Price worked in a Huntsville cotton mill until it closed in 1938, then moved to nearby Flintsville, Tennessee. Ruby Bates toured briefly as an ILD speaker, then worked in a New York state spinning factory until 1938, when she returned to Huntsville. Both women died in 1961.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Chalmers, Allan Knight. They Shall Be Free. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1951.
Crenshaw, Files and Kenneth A. Miller. Scottsboro: The Firebrand of Communism. Montgomery, Ala.: Brown Printing Co., 1936.
Hays, Arthur Garfield. Trial by Prejudice. New York: Covici, Friede Publishers, 1933.
Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Wilmette, Ill.: CrimeBooks, Inc., 1990.
Patterson, Haywood. Scottsboro Boy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1950.
Reynolds, Quentin. Courtroom (biography of Samuel Liebowitz). New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1950.