March 25, 2021

Who were the Scottsboro Boys?

Who were the Scottsboro Boys?

The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers - The nine teenagers were Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andrew and Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson and Eugene Williams, They were falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. Their trials and 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.

In the early 1930s, the nation was in the middle of the Great Depression and many Americans would try and catch rides aboard freight trains to move around the country searching for work. On March 25, 1931, a fight broke out on a Southern Railroad freight train in near Scottsboro, Alabama, the police arrested nine black youths, on a minor charges. When deputies questioned two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, they would accuse the boys of raping them while onboard the train. Less than a week after their arrest on March 25, 1931, a grand jury indictment would took place on March 30 and the trial was set for April 6. The suspects were held in a jail in Scottsboro but had to be moved, under the protection of the Alabama national guard, because a mob threatened to lynch the boys. They had to be moved 60 miles away, after nearly being lynched, the boys were only delivered back to Scottsboro the morning of their trials. It wasn't until the first day of the trial were the defendants provided with the services of two volunteer lawyers.

Ruby Bates and Victoria Price

Some 10,000 visitors invaded tiny Scottsboro with a normal population was 2,000 for the first day of the trials. Despite testimony by doctors who had examined the girls that no rape had occurred, the all-white jury convicted the eight of the nine to death, all but the youngest, who was 12 years old was sentenced to life.  The announcement of the verdict and sentences brought a storm of charges from outside the South of the gross miscarriage of justice had occurred in Scottsboro. International Labor Defense sent a telegram to Alabama's Gov. Benjamin M. Miller stating that the young men had been framed and were victims of a “legal lynching.” ILD demanded a stay of execution, promising to file a motion for a new trial or appeal.  The ILD felt this case had potential to galvanize public opinion against racism. In June, the court granted the boys a stay of execution pending an appeal to the Alabama supreme court. 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.

Later in November 1932 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions (Powell v. Alabama) on the grounds that the defendants had not received adequate legal counsel in a capital case, which violated their right to due process under the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court overturning the Alabama verdicts, set an important legal precedent for enforcing the right of African Americans to adequate counsel, and remanded the cases to the lower courts. The state of Alabama then retried one of the accused and again convicted him.  

Then later in a 1935 decision (Norris v. Alabama), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this conviction, ruling that the state had systematically excluded blacks from juries. Alabama again tried and convicted another of the group, Haywood Patterson, this time sentencing him to 75 years in prison. Further trials of the rest of the defendants resulted in more reconvictions and successful appeals until, after persistent pressure from citizens’ groups, the state freed the four youngest (who had already served six years in jail) and later paroled Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Clarence Norris. Patterson, however, had escaped in 1948 and fled to Michigan, where, three years later, he was convicted of manslaughter in a stabbing death, he would died in prison of cancer.

The trials of the Scottsboro Nine and the subsequent two Supreme Court verdicts produced an international uproar over their treatment helped add fuel the later civil rights movement in the 20th century, The case also left a lasting imprint on the nation’s legal system and racial landscape. In 2013, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously issued 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.