On March 25, 1931, nine young African-American men ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-one were arrested near Paint Rock, Alabama, for the alleged rape of two white women on a freight train, and were incarcerated in the town of Scottsboro. From these beginnings, the Scottsboro case would become the most celebrated legal battle of the 1930s and would focus the attention of the nation and the world on racial prejudice in America.
Dubbed the "Scottsboro Boys" by the media, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Andy and Roy Wright, Charlie Weems, and Eugene Williams had all grown up in the rural South, and most were riding the rails in search of work. The nature of the defendants' accused crime made it unlikely they would receive a just trial. The charge of raping white women had been traditionally used to justify the lynching of African Americans in the South, with white men being cast in the role of protectors of southern white women. The nine defendants themselves narrowly escaped a lynching at the hands of an angry mob on the day after their arrest.
Subjected to speedy trials with a limited defense, eight of the nine defendants were sentenced to death. After the case was reported in the North, a Communist-led legal organization, the International Labor Defense (ILD), began to work on appeals for the defendants. Beginning in the late 1920s, the Communist Party had taken an increased interest in African-American issues, particularly anti-lynching efforts, and its role in supporting the Scottsboro defendants provided the party credibility within the African-American community. The ILD was soon drawn into conflict with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which viewed the ILD's Scottsboro campaign as little more than Communist propaganda aimed at gaining influence among African Americans. NAACP secretary Walter White later claimed that the ILD was looking to make martyrs of the defendants, and the two organizations battled for control of the defense over the next three years.
Along with securing legal counsel for the defendants, the ILD instigated a "mass action" campaign for the release of the defendants. Using extralegal tactics to mobilize public opinion in favor of the defendants, the ILD's strategy turned the Scottsboro Case into a cause célèbre of the 1930s. Slogans such as "Save the Scottsboro Boys" and "They Shall Not Die!" were commonly found in Communist meetings and rallies in the 1930s, and Communists across the country signed petitions and held marches in support of the ILD's legal efforts. Internationally, Communists, intellectuals, and human rights advocates in the Soviet Union, Europe, and Latin America attended demonstrations and petitioned American President Herbert Hoover to pardon the Scottsboro prisoners.
The African-American community also supported the ILD's mass action efforts. African Americans were outraged by the verdicts in Scottsboro, which many viewed to be the result of Jim Crow justice in the South and representative of racial prejudice found throughout the entire nation. African Americans became an increasing part of the ILD's efforts, raising money for legal expenses and participating in demonstrations. African-American ministries and civic organizations allowed the ILD to hold rallies in their facilities, and even the NAACP was forced by community opinion to work with the ILD for a short time in 1933. Mothers of the Scottsboro defendants toured the country and went abroad, imploring crowds to support the ILD's efforts on behalf of their sons. Black celebrities and white celebrities attended fundraisers for the ILD, and the case inspired artists, such as poet Langston Hughes and bluesman Leadbelly, to compose works about the defendants.
While the Scottsboro case made national headlines, the defense team was stymied in its legal attempts to achieve the defendants' freedom. The Supreme Court granted the defendants a new trial due to inadequate counsel, and the ILD retained the services of a noted defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, to take up the case. A new trial for Hay-wood Patterson began on March 27, 1933, in Decatur, Alabama. During the trial, Leibowitz attacked the credibility of the two accusers, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, by pointing out inconsistencies in their stories and intimating that the women had questionable sexual pasts. Ruby Bates also recanted her charges and testified for the defense, but an all-white jury returned a death sentence. In a surprising turn, Alabama Circuit Court judge James E. Horton set aside the verdict, but Patterson would again be tried and convicted in December of 1933.
On September 30, 1934, two ILD officials were arrested for trying to bribe Victoria Price. This action led Leibowitz to break with the group, and he formed the American Scottsboro Committee (ASC) with the support of African-American clergymen and anti-Communist leaders. Though the defense groups feuded, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Norris and Patterson on April 1, 1935, because African Americans had been systematically excluded from the jury rolls in Alabama. With the Communist Party's move to a Popular Front program, the ILD was willing to cooperate with the ASC, NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union to create the Scottsboro Defense Committee (SDC) in December 1935. The ILD agreed to limit its mass action campaign in favor of a more traditional legal campaign, and the Scottsboro case slowly lost importance in the Communist Party's agenda. After more legal failures, in July 1937 the SDC agreed to a plea bargain agreement, which released four of the defendants. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948, while the four other prisoners waited for parole. The last defendant was released in 1950, nineteen years after his initial arrest.
Though the Scottsboro defendants had limited success in Alabama courts, the Supreme Court decisions were an important legal legacy of the defense efforts. Perhaps more importantly, the case inspired legions of activists, both white and African American, to challenge entrenched racial prejudice in America, and provided inspiration for the civil rights activism and mass protest of the 1950s and 1960s.
Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, 2nd edition. 1984.
Goodman, Barak, director. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy. 2000.
Goodman, James. Stories of Scottsboro. 1994.
Linder, Douglas O. Famous American Trials: "The Scottsboro Boys" Trials, 1931–1937. 1999. Available at: www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/Ftrials/scottsboro/scottsb.htm
Martin, Charles H. "The International Labor Defense and Black America." Labor History 26, no. 2 (1985): 165–194.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy. PBS and WGBH Boston. Available at: www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/
Robert Francis Saxe
On April 9, 1931, an Alabama judge sentenced eight black teenagers to death: Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andrew Wright, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, and Charley Weems. After perfunctory trials in the mountain town of Scottsboro, all-white juries convicted the youths of raping two white women (Victoria Price and Ruby Bates) aboard a freight train as it moved across northern Alabama on March 25. The case of the ninth defendant—thirteen-year-old Leroy Wright—ended in a mistrial after a majority of the jury refused to accept the prosecution's recommendation for life imprisonment because of his extreme youth.
The repercussions of the Scottsboro case were felt throughout the 1930s; by the end of the decade, it had become one of the great civil rights cases of the twentieth century.
After the quick conviction and draconian verdict, the Communist Party's legal affiliate, the International Labor Defense (ILD), took over the case from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Using both propaganda and aggressive legal action, the ILD succeeded in obtaining a new trial for the eight defendants. In a landmark case, Powell v. Alabama (1932), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants in capital cases had to receive more than a pro forma defense. (One Scottsboro attorney had been drunk at the original trial; the other was elderly and incompetent.)
The April 1933 retrial of Haywood Patterson was moved to Decatur, Alabama. Defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz introduced extensive evidence that the two women had concocted the charge of rape in order to avoid prosecution for prostitution and vagrancy. The highlight of the trial came when Ruby Bates—who had disappeared in 1932—dramatically renounced her earlier accusations and testified on behalf of Patterson and the other Scottsboro defendants.
But the jurors—reflecting the belief of the local white community that Bates was bribed by communist agitators ("Jew money from New York" in the words of one prose-cutor)—ignored her testimony. They were particularly incensed by the willingness of Alabama's African-American population to join the defense in attacking the state's all-white jury system. (In pretrial hearings before Judge James E. Horton Jr., ten members of Decatur's black community defied Klan cross burnings and threats to insist that they were qualified to serve as jurors but had never been called.) The jury convicted Patterson and mandated the judge to order the death penalty.
To the surprise of almost everyone, Judge Horton—convinced that Patterson and the other defendants were innocent—set aside the verdict, pointing out that the evidence "overwhelmingly preponderated" in favor of the Scottsboro defendants. He ordered a new trial and announced that the nine defendants would never be convicted in his court. In the next election, however, voters defeated Horton and elected a judge more amenable to the prosecution's case to preside over the trial of Patterson and Clarence Norris.
Many in Alabama had come to see the Scottsboro Case as a test of white Southerners' resolve against the forces of "communism" and "racial amalgamation." The guilt or innocence of the defendants thus seemed irrelevant.
The trials that followed were travesties of justice. Horton's replacement, Judge William Washington Callahan, barred critical defense evidence, bullied and belittled defense attorneys and witnesses, and effectively acted as co-prosecutor. In the fall of 1933 all-white juries convicted both Patterson and Clarence Norris.
ILD attorneys once again successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, this time on the grounds that African Americans had been systematically excluded from Alabama juries. In Norris v. Alabama (1935), the Court accepted the defense argument, overturned the Norris and Patterson verdicts, and returned the case to Alabama for retrial. The decision, though not ending all-white juries, marked another step in the Supreme Court's willingness to chip away at the legal system of the South.
In 1936 oversight of the case passed from the Communist Party to a coalition of mainline civil rights organizations. This shift gave Alabama officials—by now embarrassed over the continuing judicial rebukes—an opportunity to compromise. The state dropped the charges against the four youngest defendants, and the other five received prison sentences from twenty years to life with the understanding that once publicity in the case had subsided, they would be quietly released. Despite the intense lobbying of national civil rights leaders (and the secret intervention of President Franklin Roosevelt), Alabama officials blocked their release. It was 1950 before the last of the Scottsboro defendants, Andrew Wright, received his parole.
For a generation of African Americans who came of age in the 1930s, the Scottsboro Case was a vivid reminder of white legal oppression, and it helped further their resolve to mobilize against Jim Crow.
See also Criminal Justice System
Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, 2d ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
Kinshasa, Kwando Mbiassi. The Man From Scottsboro: Clarence Norris and the Infamous 1931 Alabama Rape Trial, In His Own Words. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997.
Norris, Clarence, and Sybil Washington. The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography. New York: Putnam, 1979.
Patterson, Haywood, and Earl Conrade. Scottsboro Boy. New York: Doubleday, 1950.
dan t. carter (1996)
The events leading to what would infamously become known around the world as the Scottsboro case began on March 25, 1931, on a Southern Railroad train traveling through northern Alabama. The onset of the Depression caused thousands of laborers, both black and white, to "ride the rails" in search of jobs, food, or shelter. But although black and white passengers on the train shared the plight of poverty, this did not outweigh a sense of racial antagonism for some aboard.
Events began with a white youth stepping on Haywood Patterson's hand as he and a few other white males made their way across a car. Patterson's protests were met with racial epithets, and eventually there was an altercation on the train between a group of young white males and a group of young black males, including Patterson, who would become one of the "Scottsboro Nine." The fighting concluded with Patterson and some others throwing the white youths from the slow-moving train. However, in the South of the 1930s, it was dangerous for black men to challenge white male authority; in the first four decades of the twentieth century, thousands of black men had been lynched at the hands of white communities. When the train stopped in nearby Paint Rock, it was met by a group of white men armed with rifles and shotguns; they yanked nine black youths, including Patterson, from the train. The others were Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, Willie Roberson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Ozie Powell, Andy Wright, and his brother, Roy Wright. Some of the nine had neither witnessed nor participated in the scuffle on the train. All were between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. They were questioned briefly, tied together, and then forced onto a flatbed truck and taken to Scottsboro, where they were detained in a jail for hours.
While deep-seated attitudes about race informed the public perception of the "Scottsboro Boys," gender in this case exacerbated the situation intensely. Back in Paint Rock, two other laborers had gotten off the train. But these, unexpectedly, were white women. Victoria Price, 21, and Ruby Bates, 17, had worked for very low wages in textile mills and, like their male counterparts, rode the train in search of a better living. Although all who rode the rails risked arrest for vagrancy, for women there was potentially the added charge of prostitution. To avoid arrest, the women claimed that they had been gang raped by the nine black youths being detained. A physician examined them, and confirmed that there were traces of semen in the women. When brought to the Scottsboro jail to identify their rapists, Bates was unable to spot anyone specifically, but Price—the more brazen and tough-mannered of the two—picked out six of the nine. It was assumed that the remaining three raped Bates.
This false accusation touched a nerve with the southern public, and led to one of the most tragic and momentous cases in American civil rights history. The white male South attempted to defend the imaginary ideal of southern womanhood against myths of black male sexual aggression. But the irony is that neither Price nor Bates actually fit the ideal of the proper southern lady. Both lived in the black section of Huntsville, unable to afford housing elsewhere. Both cavorted with white and black men alike, at times exchanging sex for food or clothing. The semen found in them was a result of consensual sex both had had the night before. Unlike the Scottsboro Nine, who had no control over how cultural perceptions of their gender and racial identities would be used against them, Price and Bates used the presumed virtue of white femininity in their favor, at the expense of the accused.
In 1931, the youths were rushed through four trials in four days, with inadequate counsel. They were immediately found guilty, and all but one was sentenced to execution. The International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of the Communist Party, intervened and stopped the sentencing, but new trials opening in 1933 and 1936 led to similar verdicts. By that time, however, the ILD had rallied support for the Scottsboro Boys around the world, making them an international symbol of racial and class-based struggles for justice, as well as of American civil rights reform. But even with broad support and virtually no evidence presented by the prosecution, the young men were not freed until the years spanning from 1943 to 1950. In a dramatic turnaround, Ruby Bates testified for the defense in 1933, confessing that the defendants never raped her. Victoria Price, however, never recanted her accusation.
Goodman, James. 1994. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Pantheon Books.
Khan, Lin Shi, and Tony Perez. 2002. Scottsboro, Alabama: A Story in Linoleum Cuts, edited by Andrew Lee. New York: New York University Press.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy. 2001. Directed by Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker. WGBH Educational Foundation and PBS Home Video.
SCOTTSBORO CASE. On 25 March 1931 nine black teenagers, after having fought with some white youths on a freight train traveling through northern Alabama, were apprehended. Also on the train were two young white women who accused the black youths of rape. Within two weeks the accused were put on trial in Scottsboro, Alabama, and eight of the nine were convicted and sentenced to death for rape. The ninth was sentenced to life imprisonment. From 1931 to 1937, during a series of appeals and new trials, the case grew to an international cause célèbre as the International Labor Defense (ILD) and the Communist Party of the U.S.A. spearheaded efforts to free "the Scottsboro boys." In 1932 the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the defendants had been denied adequate counsel (Powell v. Alabama), and the following year Alabama judge James Edwin Horton ordered a new trial because of insufficient evidence. In 1935 the Supreme Court again ruled in favor of the defendants by overturning the convictions on the grounds that Alabama had systematically excluded blacks from jury service (Norris v. Alabama).
But white public opinion in Alabama had solidified against the Scottsboro youths and their backers, and each successful appeal was followed by retrial and reconviction. Finally, in 1937, defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz and the nonpartisan Scottsboro Defense Committee arranged a compromise whereby four of the defendants were released and five were given sentences ranging from twenty
years to life. Four of the five defendants serving prison sentences were released on parole from 1943 to 1950. The fifth escaped prison in 1948 and fled to Michigan. In 1966 Judge Horton revealed theretofore confidential information that conclusively proved the innocence of the nine defendants.
Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Rev. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Goodman, James E. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.
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