The Scottsboro Boys and their Impact on America’s justice system

The nine “Scottsboro Boys” who were falsely accused of a serious crime did not receive justice until many decades later.

In the 1930s, the story of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama, made headlines in newspapers around the world. Many believe the high-profile series of events was an inspiration for the story of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird: the Scottsboro Boys story involved similar accusations. The cases of these nine boys would become one of the most famous examples of injustices and prejudices that faced African American citizens during the 20th century. First, let’s go over what exactly had happened:

The freight train left Chattanooga for Memphis at 10:20 a.m. on March 25, 1931. Thirty minutes after it had pulled out of Stevenson, Alabama, the stationmaster there saw a group of whites walking along the train tracks back toward the station. They told him that several black youths had thrown them off the train after a fight. The stationmaster telephoned ahead to the next stop, Scottsboro, but the train had already passed through. It was finally stopped at Paint Rock, where a sheriff’s posse discovered nine black teeangers and two young white women dressed in men’s overalls. The nine boys, known to history as the Scottsboro boys, ranged in age from thirteen to twenty.

Twenty minutes after the train had been stopped, one of the women, Ruby Bates, called over a member and told him that she and her companion, Victoria Price, had been gang-raped by the blacks. The boys were immediately arrested and taken to the Scottsboro jail. As the sheriff sent the women to two local doctors for medical examinations, news of the alleged attacks spread. By day’s end, a crowd of several hundred people had gathered outside of the jail, demanding that the boys be turned over for lynching. Sheriff M. L. Wann pleaded with the mob to allow the law to take its course. He also telephoned the governor for assistance, and by 11:00 p.m., twenty-five armed guardsmen were on their way to Scottsboro. To ensure the boys’ safety, they were moved to a sturdier jail in nearby Etowah. The local circuit judge, Alfred E. Hawkins, convened a special session of the grand jury to indict them; local citizens complained of the five-day delay. One local newspaper remarked, “It is best for the county that these things be disposed of in a speedy manner as it gives no excuse for people taking the law into their own hands.”

A decade or two earlier, black men charged with raping white women under similar circumstances might well have been executed without trial. Lynchings in the South peaked in the late 1880s and early 1890s with the rise of the KKK, when well over a hundred were reported annually and in some years over two hundred. Most lynchings occurred in response to allegations of crime — usually murder or rape — though occasionally the alleged “offense” was as minor as breach of racial etiquette or general uppityness. Prior to World War I, lynchings typically enjoyed the support of local communities; efforts to prosecute even known lynchers were rare, and convictions were virtually nonexistent.

By 1930, however, the number of reported lynchings had declined dramatically — from an average of 187.5 per year in the 1890s to 16.8 in the later years of the 1920s. This decline was attributable to many factors, including the possibility of federal anti-lynching legislation, the diminishing insularity of the South, more professional law enforcement, and better education. But the decline in lynchings probably also depended on their replacement with speedy trials that reliably produced guilty verdicts, death sentences, and rapid executions. Some jurisdictions actually enacted laws designed to prevent lynchings by providing for special terms of court to convene within days of alleged rapes and other incendiary crimes. In many instances, law enforcement officers explicitly promised would-be lynch mobs that black defendants would be quickly tried and executed if the mob desisted, and prosecutors appealed to juries to convict in order to reward mobs for good behavior and thus encourage similar restraint in the future.

In such cases, guilt or innocence usually mattered little. As one white southerner candidly remarked in 1933, “If a white woman is prepared to swear that a Negro either raped or attempted to rape her, we see to it that the Negro is executed.” Prevailing racial norms did not permit white jurors to believe a black man’s word over that of a white woman; prevailing gender norms did not allow defense counsel to closely interrogate a white woman about allegations involving sex. As one contemporary southern newspaper observed, the honor of a white woman was more important than the life of a black man. And because most southern white men believed that black males secretly lusted after “their” women, they generally found such rape allegations credible . . .

The Scottsboro defendants received precisely the sort of “justice” that often prevailed in trials that substituted for lynchings. Both local newspapers treated the defendants as obviously guilty even before the trial. The hometown newspaper of the alleged victims, the Huntsville Daily Times, “described the rapes as the most atrocious ever recorded in this part of the country, a wholesale debauching of society.” Judge Hawkins tried to assign all seven members of the Scottsboro bar to represent the defendants, but all but one of them declined. That one was Milo Moody, nearly seventy years old and later described by one investigator as “a doddering, extremely unreliable, senile individual who is losing whatever ability he once had.”

The trials began on April 6. A crowd estimated at five to ten thousand gathered outside the courthouse, which was protected by national guardsmen wielding machine guns. Hawkins appointed as trial counsel a Tennessee lawyer, Stephen R. Roddy, who had been sent to Scottsboro by the defendants’ families to look after their interests. Roddy was an alcoholic, and one observer reported that “he could scarcely walk straight” that morning. When Roddy objected to his appointment on the grounds that he was unprepared and unfamiliar with Alabama law, Hawkins appointed Moody, the local septuagenarian, to assist him. Roddy was permitted less than half an hour with his clients before the trial began. Defense counsel moved for a change of venue based on the inflammatory newspaper coverage and the attempted lynching of the defendants. But Sheriff Wann now denied that the defendants had been threatened, and Judge Hawkins denied the motion.

The state sought the death penalty against eight of the nine defendants — all but the one who was identified as being only thirteen years old. The nine were tried in four groups, beginning with Clarence Norris and Charley Weems. Victoria Price was the main prosecution witness, and she testified that the black youths had thrown the white boys off the train and then gang-raped her and Bates.

Testimony provided by the examining doctors raised serious doubts as to whether the girls had been raped. In their testimony, the two women also provided inconsistent accounts of various details of the incident, such as whether they had spoken with the white boys on the train and how long the interracial fracas had lasted. One man present when the train was stopped testified that he had not heard Price make any rape allegations.

However, the admission by Norris on cross-examination that the women had been raped by all of the other eight defendants, though not by him, severely undercut his defense. (It later came out that Sheriff Wann had warned Norris that he would be killed if he did not admit that the girls had been raped.) Defense counsel prodded the illiterate and confused Norris to change his story, but he held firm. The defense called no witnesses and made no closing argument.

While the jury deliberated on the fate of Norris and Weems, the trial of Haywood Patterson began. When the first jury returned to the courtroom to announce guilty verdicts and death sentences, crowds in and out of the courthouse erupted with delight. According to defense lawyer Roddy, “[i]nstantly, a wild and thunderous roar went up from the audience and was heard by those in the Court House yard where thousands took up the demonstration and carried it on for fifteen or twenty minutes.” Even though Patterson’s jury heard this, Judge Hawkins refused to declare a mistrial.

The prosecution’s case grew stronger with each trial, as previously unhelpful witnesses were dropped and the alleged victims improved their stories with each recounting. Within a five-minute span on the witness stand, Patterson contradicted himself as to whether he had seen the girls being raped or indeed had seen them on the train at all. Several of the other defendants also testified inconsistently. After less than twenty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury convicted Patterson and sentenced him to death.

Five of the defendants were prosecuted together in a third trial. The state’s case against them was even weaker because these defendants did not incriminate each other on cross-examination, the women were less certain in identifying them as the rapists, and one of the defendants was nearly blind while another had such a severe case of venereal disease that raping a woman would have been very difficult. The jury nonetheless returned five more death sentences. Judge Hawkins declared a mistrial in the case of the last defendant, Roy Wright, when the jury could not agree on whether to sentence the thirteen-year-old to life imprisonment or to death — a sentence the prosecution had not even sought. None of the four trials lasted more than a few hours.

In November 1932, the US Supreme Court overturned the convictions, declaring that the defendants were not provided adequate counsel and sufficient time to prepare their case. This violated the “due process” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In March 1933, the Scottsboro Boys were given new trials in Decatur, Alabama, one at a time. Haywood Patterson was tried first. High-profile New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz agreed to be their defense lawyer. The case was reported in newspapers around the world. In his case, Leibowitz challenged Victoria Price’s version of events directly, angering many white Alabamians. He also called a physician as a witness, who explained that the physical examination of the girls at the time of the incident suggested that they were not raped. Finally, he surprised everyone by putting Ruby Bates on the stand (she had previously been missing), where she changed her testimony and claimed that the girls made up the charges to avoid being arrested for vagrancy. Patterson was found guilty anyway and sentenced to death. The judge postponed the other eight trials until public tension toward Leibowitz subsided. Then, in June, the judge set aside Patterson’s conviction, citing the overwhelming evidence that the charges were false, and he called for yet another new trial. In November and December of that year, Patterson has tried again, along with Clarence Norris, and both were convicted and sentenced to death.

On April 1, 1935, the US Supreme Court overturned the new convictions because lawyers for the Scottsboro Boys had proven that Alabama intentionally excluded African Americans from sitting on any juries. This violated the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Following the 1935 US Supreme Court ruling, the Scottsboro Boys were each tried again on the charges of raping Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. They were convicted again and served more time in prison. The more the Court intervened on their behalf, the more determined white Alabamians seemed to punish them. Thus, despite two Supreme Court rulings in their favor, the Scottsboro boys each served from five to twenty years in prison for crimes they did not commit. In 2013, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to issue posthumous pardons to three of the boys, Patterson, Weems, and Andy Wright, bringing a long-overdue end to one of the most notorious cases of racial injustice in U.S. history.

The Scottsboro Boys are just one example in thousands of the injustices African-Americans in history. Thousands were falsely accused and unlike the Scottsboro boys, never received any kind of justice and were executed. The impact the Scottsboro boys had on America was profound: The trials of the Scottsboro Boys, the two Supreme Court verdicts they produced, and the uproar over their treatment helped fuel the rise of the civil rights movement later in the 20th century and left a lasting imprint on the nation’s legal and cultural history. Although criminal trials are much fairer towards blacks then they were in the 1900s, African Americans still face much more inequality and injustice in the American justice system today, as seen in violent police attacks and unfair sentencing for African Americans compared to white men who committed the same crime. Let the Scottsboro Case be an example of how we need to implement more change in the justice system in today’s world.

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.