Sept. 22, 2021

Who are the Scottsboro Nine?

The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. The trials and repeated retrials of the Scottsboro Boys sparked an international uproar and produced two landmark...

The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. The trials and repeated retrials of the Scottsboro Boys sparked an international uproar and produced two landmark U.S. Supreme Court verdicts


Please support our Patreon:

Buy me a Coffee


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 while riding the Southern Railroad freight train,  a white man stood on the hand of 18-year-old Haywood Patterson, and almost knocked him off the train. A fight broke out, and the black travelers expel the white travelers off the train. The defeated white youths spread word of what had happened, and an angry, armed mob met the train in Paint Rock, Alabama, ready for lynchings. The police would arrested nine black youths, on a minor charges but When deputies questioned two white women, Ruby Bates 17 and Victoria Price 21, they would accuse the boys of raping them while onboard the train. The women told police they were going from city to city seeking mill work; as hoboes themselves, the women could have been tried on charges of vagrancy and illegal sexual activity if they had not accused the black boys. Nevertheless, Less than a week after their arrest on March 25, 1931, a grand jury would indict the boys and the trial was set for April 6. the National Guard was summoned to disperse a violent crowd surrounding the jail and the defendants who were being held in a jail in Scottsboro had to be moved 60 miles away, under the protection of the Alabama national guard, because a mob threatened to lynch the boys. the Scottsboro nine were only delivered back to Scottsboro the morning of their trials. The judge had ordered the Alabama bar to assist the defendants and It wasn't until the first day of the trial were the defendants provided with the services of two volunteer lawyers. 69 year old retired Milo Moody, who had not defended a case in decades and Stephen Roddy real estate lawyer, would assist him.



Some 10,000 visitors invaded tiny Scottsboro with a normal population was 2,000 for the first day of the trials. The judge and prosecutor wanted to speed the nine trials to avoid violence, so the first trial took a day and a half, and the rest took place one right after the other, taking place in just one day. The whole trail only lasted four days and despite testimony by doctors who had examined the girls stating that no rape had occurred, the all-white jury convicted the eight of the nine boys to death,  only the youngest Leroy Wright, who was 12 years old at the time of the incident, his case ended hung jury because some jurors thought that a life sentence would be more appropriate, considerng his youth, than execution. A mistrial was declared, but Wright remained in custody till 1937 awaiting the final verdict on his co defendants. 

The announcement of the verdict and sentences brought a storm of charges from outside the South of the blatant miscarriage of justice had occurred in Scottsboro. After a demonstration in Harlem, the Communist Party USA took an interest in the Scottsboro case. the legal wing of the American Communist Party, the 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 as well as win over minority populations and to highlight inequities in American culture. The ILD retained the services of attorneys George W. Chamlee and  Joseph Brodsky.

Chamlee moved for new trials for the all defendants. Private investigations took place, revealing that Price and Bates had been prostitutes in Tennessee, who regularly serviced both black and white clientele. Chamlee offered judge Hawkins affidavits to that effect, but the judge forbade him to read them out loud. The defense argued that this evidence proved that the two women had likely lied at trial.  Chamlee pointed to the uproar in Scottsboro that occurred when the verdicts were reported as further evidence that the change of venue should have been granted.

In June 1931 the court granted the boys a stay of execution pending an appeal to the Alabama supreme court and The ILD launched a national effort to win support for the Scottsboro Nine through public gatherings, such as parades, rallies and demonstrations. The defense team argued before the Alabama Supreme court that their clients had not had adequate representation, had insufficient time for counsel to prepare their cases, had their juries intimidated by the crowd, and finally, that it was unconstitutional for blacks to have been excluded from the jury. However, roughly a year after their arrests, However, In March 1932, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions of seven of the defendants but did granted Eugene Williams a new trial, as he was a minor at the time of his conviction. the Court stated: "There is no contention on the part of the defendants, that they had sexual intercourse with the alleged victim ... with her consent ... so the defendants would not be granted a new trial.


The case was appealed before United States Supreme Court on October 10, 1932, The ILD retained Walter Pollak and The Attorney General of Alabama, Thomas E. Knight, represented the State. Pollak would argue that the defendants had been denied due process: first, due to the mob atmosphere; and second, because of the strange attorney appointments and their poor performance at trial. Last, he argued that African Americans were systematically excluded from jury duty contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. Knight countered that there had been no mob atmosphere at the trial, and pointed to the finding by the Alabama Supreme Court that the trial had been fair and representation "able." He told the court that he had "no apologies" to make.

Later in 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.  

In an opinion by Associate Justice George Sutherland, the Court found the defendants had been denied effective counsel. The Supreme Court did not fault the lawyers Moody and Roddy for lack of an effective defense, noting that both had told Judge Hawkins that they had not had time to prepare their cases. They said the problem was with the way Judge Hawkins "immediately hurried to trial. "This conclusion did not find the Scottsboro defendants innocent but ruled that the procedures violated their rights to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court sent the case back to Judge Hawkins for a retrial.

As the second round of trials began in the circuit court in Decatur, Alabama, about 50 miles west of Scottsboro, under Judge James Horton Patterson’s case was retried first. New Laywer Samuel Leibowitz objected that African-American jurors had been excluded from the jury pool. He called the jury commissioner to the stand, asking if there were any blacks on the juror rolls, and when told yes, suggested his answer was not honest. One of the boys’ accusers, Ruby Bates, recanted her initial testimony and agreed to testify for the defense. But even with her testimony and evidence from the initial medical examination of the women that refuted the rape charge, another all-white jury convicted the first defendant and recommended the death penalty.However, Judge Horton having reviewed the evidence and met privately with one of the medical examiners, He suspended the death sentence and granted Patterson a new trial. In an additional series of trials and both Patterson and Norris were convicted and sentenced to death in late 1933, the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously denied the defense’s motion for new trials, and the case headed for a second hearing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorneys Samuel Leibowitz, Walter H. Pollak and Osmond Frankel argued the case from February 15 to 18, 1935. Leibowitz showed the justices that the names of African Americans had been added to the jury rolls. The Justices examined the items closely with a magnifying glass. Thomas Knight maintained that the jury process was color blind.

On April 1, 1935, U.S. Supreme Court overturned this conviction and sent the cases back a second time for retrials in Alabama. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes observed the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution clearly forbade the states from excluding citizens from juries due solely to their race.[123] He noted that the Court had inspected the jury rolls, chastising Judge Callahan and the Alabama Supreme Court for accepting assertions that black citizens had not been excluded. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, "something more" was needed. The Court concluded, "the motion to quash ... should have been granted."The Court ruled that it would be a great injustice to execute Patterson when Norris would receive a new trial, reasoning that Alabama should have opportunity to reexamine Patterson's case as well.

Alabama Governor Bibb Graves instructed every solicitor and judge in the state, "Whether we like the decisions or not ... We must put Negroes in jury boxes. Alabama is going to observe the supreme law of America."

Victoria Price swore new rape complaints against the defendants as the sole complaining witness. An African American, Creed Conyer, was selected as the first black person since Reconstruction to sit on an Alabama grand jury. The indictment could be made with a two-thirds vote, and the grand jury voted to indict the defendants. Thomas Knight, Jr. by now (May 1935) Lieutenant Governor, was appointed a special prosecutor to the cases.

Alabama again tried and convicted another of the group, Haywood Patterson, this time sentencing him to 75 years in prison. The day after the verdict, Ozie Powell was shot in the head after attacking a deputy sheriff with a knife; both men survived. After the Alabama Supreme Court upheld Patterson’s conviction in June, and Norris’s third trial ended in another death sentence, Andy Wright and Weems were both convicted of rape and long prison sentences as well.Through negotiations with the defense, prosecutors agreed to drop rape charges against Powell, but he was convicted of assaulting the deputy sheriff and sentenced to 20 years.

By January 23, 1936, Haywood Patterson was convicted of rape and sentenced to 75 years—the first time in Alabama that a black man had not been sentenced to death in the rape of a white woman.[2] Patterson escaped from prison in 1948; he published The Scottsboro Boy in 1950. That year he was caught by the FBI in Michigan. The governor of the state refused to extradite Patterson to Alabama. He was later arrested for stabbing a man in a bar fight and convicted of manslaughter. Patterson died of cancer in prison in 1952, after serving one year of his second sentence.

On January 24, 1936, Ozie Powell was involved in injuring a deputy.

During May 1937, Thomas Knight died.

On July 15, 1937, Clarence Norris was convicted of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to death. Governor Bibb Graves of Alabama in 1938 commuted his death sentence to life in prison. He was paroled in 1946 and moved north, where he married and had children. In 1970 he began seeking a pardon, with the help of the NAACP and Alabama's attorney. In 1976 Governor George Wallace pardoned Norris, declaring him "not guilty." Norris' autobiography, The Last of the Scottsboro Boys, was published in 1979. Norris died on January 23, 1989, of Alzheimer's disease.

On July 22, 1937, Andrew Wright was convicted of rape and sentenced to 99 years. He was paroled, but returned to prison after violating parole. Finally released in 1950, he was paroled in New York State.

On July 24, 1937, Charlie Weems was convicted of rape and sentenced to 105 years in prison. He was paroled in 1943.

On July 24, 1937, Ozie Powell was taken into court and the new prosecutor, Thomas Lawson, announced that the state was dropping rape charges against Powell and that he was pleading guilty to assaulting a deputy. He was sentenced to 20 years. The state dropped the rape charges as part of this plea bargain.[6] Powell was released from prison in 1946.

On July 24, 1937, the state of Alabama dropped all charges against Willie Roberson, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright. The four had spent over six years in prison on death row, as "adults" despite their ages. Thomas Lawson announced that all charges were being dropped against the remaining four defendants: He said that after "careful consideration" every prosecutor was "convinced" that Roberson and Montgomery were "not guilty." Wright and Williams, regardless of their guilt or innocence, were 12 and 13 at the time and, in view of the jail time they had already served, justice required that they also be released.

After Alabama freed Roy Wright, the Scottsboro Defense Committee took him on a national lecture tour. He joined the United States Army. Later he married and joined the Merchant Marine. After Wright came back from a lengthy time at sea in 1959, he thought his wife had been unfaithful. He shot and killed her before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.[128]

On July 26, 1937, Haywood Patterson was sent to Atmore State Prison Farm. The remaining "Scottsboro Boys" in custody, that of Norris, A Wright and Weems were at this time in Kilby 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.

Governor Graves had planned to pardon the prisoners in 1938 but was angered by their hostility and refusal to admit their guilt. He refused the pardons but did commute Norris' death sentence to life in prison.

Ruby Bates toured for a short while as an ILD speaker. She said she was "sorry for all the trouble that I caused them", and claimed she did it because she was "frightened by the ruling class of Scottsboro." Later, she worked in a New York state spinning factory until 1938; that year she returned to Huntsville. Victoria Price worked in a Huntsville cotton mill until 1938, then moved to Flintville, Tennessee. Victoria Price never recanted her testimony.