During the Depression it was a common sight to see youth, both black and white, traveling the trains in search of jobs. While living the hobo lifestyle was neither desired nor legal in all areas, the search for financial security outweighed the risk of being caught. On March 25, 1931 a group of nine black youth between the ages of 12 and 19, and a handful of white youth got into a physical altercation aboard a train. When a few of the white youth who were thrown from the train complained to a station master, the train was stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama. Upon stopping the train, all nine black boys were arrested for fighting. Their plight increased when two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, stepped off the train and claimed the boys raped them.
Arrested that day were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wright. The boys were tied together and transported on a flatbed truck to Scottsboro, Alabama. Ruby Bates and Victoria Price were sent to a doctor, where an examination determined the presence of semen, but no vaginal damage that would indicate a gang rape. Police also discovered that Victoria Price was a known prostitute and had possibly taken minor Ruby Bates over state lines for the purpose of prostitution.
The boys were indicted for rape on March 30th and the trials started April 6, 1931. The trials moved quickly, only lasting four days to try all the boys. Although the Alabama bar should have sent a defense attorney for the boys, none arrived. Instead, the families had to muster up money for anyone willing to defend them. In this case it was real estate attorney, Stephen Roddy, and 70-year old attorney, Milo Moody, who hadn’t taken a defense case in a few decades. Neither attorney was prepared, nor had they spoken at length with any of the boys. Roddy was not even familiar with Alabama law.
Stephen Roddy petitioned for a change of venue, but was denied. His evidence that the crowds outside the courtroom created a mob atmosphere was overruled by the judge, who decided that the crowd was merely curious. Roddy’s mob evidence would play a part in a future convictions reversal by the Supreme Court. The boys were broken into four groups, with only Roy Wright and Haywood Patterson being tried separately. All of the trials except one found the boys guilty and sentenced them to death. Roy Wright, the youngest of the boys, received a hung jury when some jurors wanted life imprisonment instead of death. The boys were scheduled to go to the electric chair on July 10, 1931.
After the convictions, both the International Labor Defense and the NAACP offered to handle the case for the victims. The families decided to go with the International Labor Defense over the NAACP. New attorney, George Chamlee, immediately petitioned for new trials for each boy. He motioned that the women were prostitutes lying about being raped, and that the juries should be racially mixed. At the time, Alabama would deny jurors of African-American descent because of race. New trials were denied, and the appeal process continued.
In 1932, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was ruled that the boys were not given fair counsel. The Supreme Court noted that the U.S. Constitution demands that criminal defendants receive counsel that is effective and prepared for a trial. The court overturned all convictions and ruled that the boys receive appropriate counsel in a retrial. The case was then moved to Decatur where Haywood Patterson received a new trial and was again found guilty and sentenced to death. The presiding Judge Horton realized that justice was not being served and threw out the convictions and ordered a retrial. Prosecutors petitioned for a new judge and were successful. Judge Callahan upheld the convictions for Patterson and Norris. In 1935, the defense appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which reversed the convictions again, an event that happens rarely with the Supreme Court, on the grounds that blacks were left out of the jury pool. After this reversal, Alabama had to include black citizens when choosing the jury. The retrial jury included eleven white men and one black man.
Eventually, the majority of the Scottsboro Boys had their charges dropped in 1937, although all of them had served at least six years in prison. Clarence Norris, Andrew Wright, and Charlie Weems had their convictions upheld. Weems was released in 1943, Wright in 1950, and Norris was pardoned in 1976. Ozie Powell received injuries after being shot in the face during a prison altercation with a guard and was released in 1946. Roy Wright had his charges dropped and joined the Army. Upon his return from duty, he killed his wife on the grounds that she was unfaithful and then killed himself.
This case impacted future trials against African-Americans as attorneys struggled to get racially fair juries. It also set precedence for legal counsel and helped other poor minorities receive a fair trial with an appointed, prepared counsel. The Supreme Court’s decisions to overturn convictions not once, but twice forced southern courts to follow the laws upheld by the U.S. Constitution, for fear that true criminals would receive not guilty verdicts. This case also helped educate the common person, especially black citizens, on their rights as criminal defendants. After the Scottsboro Boys case, black citizens understood their rights to a fair, prepared counsel and a racially mixed jury.
The following links explore the case in-depth and include images from the notorious trial.
- PBS gives a general timeline of the Scottsboro Boys trial, including information about publications and documentaries.
- The Trials of the Scottsboro Boys is a site put out by the University of Missouri – Kansas City that includes trial information and a map that details the location of the train during the events of the supposed crime.
- Penn State has an exposition about the effects of having the International Labor Defense fight the case for the boys.
- A Scottsboro Protest Exhibit is an online portrayal of photographs and posters created during the trial.
- Encyclopedia of Alabama discusses the trial and has further information about Alabama’s historical hobo lifestyle and the city of Scottsboro.
- The Scottsboro Nine site has screenshots of actual New York Times news stories during the trial.
- Missouri Courts provides a scholarly exposition from a judge that explores how Judge James Horton was a pivotal character in the Scottsboro Boys trial and how he looked beyond prejudice when making his rulings.
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