Scottsboro boys

It was one of the most sensational trials in American History: A pictorial review today. The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers accused in Alabama of raping two White American women on a train in 1931. The landmark set of legal cases from this incident dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. The cases included a lynch mob before the suspects had been indicted, a frame up, all-white juries, rushed trials, and disruptive mobs. It is frequently cited as an example of an overall miscarriage of justice in the United States legal system.

On March 25, 1931, several people were hoboing on a freight train traveling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee. Several white teenagers jumped off the train and reported to the sheriff that they had been attacked by a group of black teenagers. The sheriff deputized a posse comitatus, stopped and searched the train at Paint Rock, Alabama and arrested the black Americans who became known as The Scottsboro Boys. It was necessary to call out the Alabama National Guard to protect the boys. They can be seen here holding rifles.[1]p.1

Two young white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, also got off the train and accused the black teenagers of rape. The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Alabama, in three rushed trials, in which the defendants received poor legal representation. All but 12-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death, the common sentence in Alabama at the time for black men convicted of raping white women, even though there was medical evidence to suggest that they had not committed the crime. No white man had ever been tried in Alabama (or in Florida for that matter) for raping a white woman.[2]p.2

With help from the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), the case was appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed seven of the eight convictions, and granted 13-year-old Eugene Williams a new trial because he was a minor. Chief Justice John C. Anderson dissented, ruling that the defendants had been denied an impartial jury, fair trial, fair sentencing, and effective counsel. While waiting for their trials, eight of the nine defendants were held in Kilby Prison. Their early support for the Scottsboro Boys resonated with many African Americans and was used by the Communists as a way of attracting blacks to join its ranks but few blacks did so. The case was widely covered in the Soviet Union as proof of American duplicity.[3]p.4

The cases were twice appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which led to landmark decisions on the conduct of trials. In Powell v. Alabama (1932), it ordered new trials.[4]p.6

A huge demonstration in Washington, D.C. in 1933 in support of the Scottsboro Boys which was now an international cause. Keep in mind that Hitler had just come to power in Germany and pictures such as these enhanced his rhetoric about America having its own race problems and had no right to point fingers at Germany.for how it treated its minorities such as Jews. Roosevelt and the Democrats needed the South politically and therefore offered no help from the federal government. As Roosevelt’s legacy is visited it should be remembered that unlike his wife, the president was no friend of the black man.[5]p.11

The Scottsboro Boys Judge Horton was replaced and the case tried under a more biased judge, whose rulings went against the defense. For the third time a jury—now with one black American member—returned a guilty verdict. (Can you imagine what would have happened to the one black on that jury had he voted for the defendants?)[6]p.23

Two of the defendants , no longer boys, following the third trial. The case was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. It ruled that African Americans had to be included on juries, and ordered retrials. Apparently, placing a token black on the jury was not successful in the prosecution of the men.[7]p.24

In 1946 charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the rest ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences. One was shot in prison by a guard and permanently disabled. Two escaped, were later charged with other crimes, convicted, and sent back to prison.[8]p.25

Clarence Norris, the oldest defendant and the only one sentenced to death, “jumped parole” in 1946 and went into hiding. He was found in 1976 and pardoned by Governor George Wallace, by which time the case had been thoroughly analyzed and shown to be an injustice. Norris later wrote a book about his experiences. He was the last surviving defendant. He died in 1989.[9]p.26


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