Scottsboro Trials

2012-09-02 18:47:39

On March 25, 1931, nine African-American boys and young men who had stowed away on board a freight train were arrested in Paint Rock, Alabama, and accused of raping two white women. The defendants were tried in the nearby town of Scottsboro, and their legal case became a cause ce´le`bre of the American left during the Great Depression. The fate of the ‘‘Scottsboro Boys,’’ as they became known, reveals how civil liberties ironically have been advanced at times through the efforts of radical groups committed to the destruction of liberalism as a form of political organization, in this case the Communist Party.

The nine defendants were poor and uneducated, members of the army of the dispossessed, and they had boarded the Southern Railroad in search of work. Their names were Charlie Weems (aged twenty), Clarence Norris (nineteen), Haywood Patterson (nineteen), Andy Wright (nineteen), Olen Montgomery (seventeen), Willie Roberson (seventeen), Ozie Powell (sixteen), Eugene Williams (thirteen), and Roy Wright (twelve). Some were related by blood; others had known each other previously; others were strangers. The train also sheltered a number of poor white men, as well as two female millworkers, and sometime prostitutes, named Victoria Price (aged twenty-one) and Ruby Bates (seventeen).

As the train moved across northern Alabama, a fight broke out between the black and white vagabonds, probably as a result of white taunts. ‘‘We beat the hell out of them,’’ explained one of the Scottsboro defendants years later, recalling what took place when a group of whites jumped into one of the cars where the blacks had gathered. After being thrown from the moving train, seven of the bedraggled whites reported the incident to the stationmaster in Stevenson, who wired ahead to Paint Rock. There, the train was stopped and searched by a deputized group of whites with rifles, shotguns, and pitchforks. The blacks on board were arrested and taken to Scottsboro, the seat of Jackson County.

As the posse searched the train, it also discovered Price and Bates. The two women were from the lowest strata of white society, where poverty eroded the division between the races, and as such they typically would have been subject to the disdain of polite society. But to escape contempt and garner sympathy and attention, the made the false accusation that they had been raped by the black stowaways. The explosive charge almost invariably would have led to the death of those accused, through either legal or extralegal means, so that Southern white honor could be reclaimed.

The trials began on April 6, 1931, before Judge Alfred E. Hawkins. More than 100 soldiers from the Alabama National Guard protected the courtroom from a crowd of thousands of spectators. The defendants offered widely conflicting accounts of what had happened, some pointing the finger at their codefendants, and the prosecution took advantage by dividing the case into four separate trials. In short order, all nine were found guilty, and eight were sentenced to death by electrocution. A mistrial was declared in the case of Roy Wright, a minor, because the all-white jury was deadlocked on whether he should be executed.

In the meantime, the case had attracted the attention of the Communist Party. Seeking to find a rallying cry for American radicalism and to increase its African-American membership, the party used political protest to bring the case to public attention, and shortly after the convictions its legal arm, the Industrial Labor Defense (ILD), edged out the liberal National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and secured the right to represent the defendants. Under ILD leadership, the case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in Powell v. Alabama (1932) reversed seven of the convictions, ruling that the careless way in which Judge Hawkins had appointed the original counsel for the defense had denied the defendants due process of law.

Haywood Patterson, the first to face retrial, came before the court of Judge James Edward Horton in Decatur in March 1933. Criminal defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, who had been retained by the ILD, tried unsuccessfully to challenge the grand and petit juries on the ground that blacks had been systematically excluded from the jury rolls. At trial, he also challenged Price’s testimony (Bates had recanted her accusation) and presented the testimony of one of the original examining physicians that the two young women had not been raped. In his closing argument, County Solicitor Wade Wright urged the jury to show ‘‘that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.’’ The jury found Patterson guilty and sentenced him to die.

Fearing mob violence, Judge Horton postponed the trials of the other defendants. Next came a surprise: influenced by the advice of a second physician who had examined Price and Bates, and who also believed they had not been raped, Judge Horton set aside the decision of the jury and ordered a new trial (he was never again elected to public office). Two of the defendants were then tried and convicted before Judge William Washington Callahan beginning in November 1933. These convictions were later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Norris v. Alabama (1935), based on Leibowitz’s challenge that the defendants had been denied equal protection of the laws because blacks had been excluded from the rolls of potential jurors.

After indictments were issued by a new grand jury, four of the Scottsboro defendants were once again tried and convicted. One was sentenced to death, the others for prison terms ranging from seventy-five to ninety-nine years. Another received twenty years for stabbing a deputy sheriff. Charges against the remaining defendants were dropped. Although the ‘‘Scottsboro Boys’’ eventually left the public eye, their ordeal left behind a body of law that advanced the rights of criminal defendants—a signal example of the paradoxical process in which antiliberal political movements have advanced liberal legal ideals—and a symbol of the struggle against racial injustice that nurtured a memory of 1930s political radicalism into the 1960s.


References and Further Reading

  • Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
  • Goodman, James. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Vintage, 1994.
  • Norris, Clarence Norris, and Sybil D. Washington. The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography. New York: Putnam, 1979.
  • Weiner, Mark S. Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)
  • Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587 (1935)

See also Capital Punishment: Lynching; Jury Trials and Race; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)