The Scottsboro Boys Trials
In Alabama, one of the most egregious acts of injustice occurred during the 1930s when nine Black youth were falsely accused of assaulting two white women. The youth became known as the Scottsboro Boys. Producing two landmark United States Supreme Court rulings, the trials are among the most significant cases in the history of the American legal system. Sparking one of the largest civil rights movements, extensive worldwide media coverage of the Scottsboro Boys trials unmasked racial inequities of the judicial system in the Jim Crow South.
On March 25, 1931, nine black youth ranging from 12 to 19 years old hopped a Southern Railway train leaving Chattanooga, Tennessee, and headed for Memphis. As the train crossed into Alabama, a fight broke out between some of the Black and white hoboes. The whites lost the fight, jumped off the train at Stevenson, and filed a complaint. The Sheriff called ahead to Scottsboro to stop the train, but it had just sped past. At Paint Rock, a posse of armed men pulled the Blacks off the train. To everyone's surprise, they also discovered two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, also a white male on the train. The women said they had been raped, and the nine black youth were hauled off to the county jail in Scottsboro, where a lynch mob congregated. The District Attorney quickly brought charges, even though a doctor's exam concluded that their stories were false. A climate of hate and anger created an explosive atmosphere. Within twelve days of the arrest, the youth were tried, convicted and all but eight were sentenced to death. The jury could not reach a verdict for the youngest boy, Roy Wright, who was 12 years old. After the swift sentencing, both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the International Labor Defense (ILD) rushed in to assist the defendants. Later, the Supreme Court ruled in Powell v Alabama that all defendants were entitled to adequate legal counsel during a capital felony.
A change of venue for all remaining trials from 1933-1937 was at Decatur, fifty miles from Scottsboro. Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, Decatur's population was about 16,000. Affected by the Great Depression, many businesses had closed or had major layoffs. In March 1933, Haywood Patterson was the first to stand trial. Circuit Judge James E. Horton presided. Thomas Knight, Alabama Attorney General, was the prosecutor. Funded by the (ILD), an arm of the Communist party, the lead attorney for the defendants was high-profile lawyer Samuel Leibowitz from New York.
In an effort to quash the indictments, Leibowitz argued that the defendants could not receive a fair trial because Blacks had been systematically excluded from jury rolls. He met with prominent men of the Old Town Community who made a list of Blacks that they deemed qualified to serve as jurors. Men (including Blacks) from Jackson and Morgan Counties were subpoenaed to testify. All, including jury commissioners, concluded that no Blacks had ever sat on the petit or grand jury. Judge Horton rejected the motion to quash, and Leibowitz's argument would later set the precedence for the second Supreme Court ruling, Norris v Alabama, guaranteeing the inclusion of Blacks on jury rolls.
During the retrial, Victoria Price gave explosive testimony about the alleged attack. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the defendant was innocent, including a doctor's affirmation that there was no evidence of rape and the dramatic appearance of Ruby Bates, who recanted her story, Patterson was convicted a second time. Judge Horton would later set aside the verdict. In 1937, five of the youth received "nol pro" (a formal notice of abandonment by a plaintiff or prosecutor of all or part of a suit or action). The four who were released were never to return to Alabama. Lesser prison sentences than death were imposed on the other defendants who would later be paroled or released.
In April 2013, Governor Robert Bentley signed historic legislation posthumously exonerating the nine Scottsboro Boys.