One of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in US legal history took place during a series of trials in Alabama that determined the fate of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who were accused of raping two young white women in March of 1931.
On March 25th of that year, Olen Montgomery (age 17), Clarence Norris (19), Haywood Patterson (18), Ozie Powell (16), Willie Roberson (16), Charlie Weems (16), Eugene Williams (13), and brothers Andy (19) and Roy Wright (12) were all “hoboing” or illegally traveling on a Southern Railway Train between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee. Near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, a fight broke out between the black youths and a group of white boys, the latter of whom were kicked off the train. When authorities arrived near Paint Rock, Alabama to “capture every Negro on the train,” officers found two young white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, traveling among the aforementioned nine young black boys. Both Bates and Price told authorities that they had been raped, thus beginning the legal odyssey of the Scottsboro Boys.
As was typical during Jim Crow, a lynch mob grew near Scottsboro hoping to dispense vigilante justice among the boys, however, Sheriff Matt Wann informed the crowd that he and his deputies would shoot and kill any man that set foot on the jail house steps. As such, the Scottsboro boys were kept safe until trial.
During the initial trial, which ended in convictions and sentences ranging from death to life without parole for each, the group was defended by 69-year-old Milo Moody, a white lawyer who had told the trial court that he had not tried a criminal case in decades, and Stephen Roddy, a real estate lawyer. On appeal, the United States Supreme Court remanded the case (Powell vs. Alabama) on grounds that the defendants were not afforded effective assistance of counsel.
During the second trial of several defendants, the prosecution purposefully excluded blacks from the jury, a common practice ever since blacks had systematically been excluded from the voter rolls per the Alabama constitution during the early 20th Century. To counter the prosecution’s assertion that no local blacks were qualified to serve, Attorney Samuel Leibowitz of New York, who had been hired by the American Communist Party, called local black professionals as witnesses to show that they were qualified for jury service. One black professional, John Sanford of Scottsboro, was treated with such disrespect by the prosecution that Leibowitz angrily warned him to “stand back, take your finger out of his eye, and call him mister.” Nevertheless, no black jurors were allowed to serve during the second trial, one that was marked by the racial and Anti-Semitic tenor of the prosecutor who in closing arguments stated that the jury should disregard the defense and not allow the case to “be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York.”
When the second trial ended in guilty verdicts, the US Supreme Court overturned the convictions (Patterson vs. Alabama and Norris vs. Alabama) arguing that the US Constitution forbade jurors from being excluded on account of race.
A third trial included one black juror but the verdict for the defendant Haywood Patterson was guilty; for the first time since the Civil War, Patterson was sentenced to 75 years in prison as opposed to death. Clarence Norris was later convicted and sentenced to death, however, the state’s governor, Bibb Graves, reduced the sentence to life imprisonment and in 1946, Norris jumped parole and went into hiding. Norris was later found in New York in 1976 but was pardoned by Governor George Wallace upon the urging of the NAACP that same year.
Defendants Andrew Wright, Charlie Weems and Ozie Powell also were convicted and sentenced to prison, though Powell was shot and rendered a vegetable following an altercation with prison guards in 1936. Charges were later dropped against Scottsboro Boys Willie Roberson, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright although the four had already spent six years in custody by the time they were released in 1937.
One of the alleged victims, Ruby Bates, later recanted her story of rape and apologized for “all of the trouble” she had caused the Scottsboro Boys. While most history books carry little information about a case that was an international cause celebre and regularly featured in the “New York Times” and “Time” magazine, author Harper Lee intimated that her best-selling classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” was based in part upon these events.
In 2013, on the eve of the 45th commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the State of Alabama granted posthumous pardons to the Scottsboro Boys. Still, the legacy of their legal travails remains prevalent in courts across America where justice often differs along racial lines. Until these inequities are addressed by elected prosecutors, pardons and formal apologies will continue to ring hollow.