Category:
Right On…Music of the Civil Rights Era
Difficulty Level:
Moderate

In Recognition of Less Known Civil Rights Stories and Unsung Heroes

Scottsboro Boys Trial

This incident involving made-up claims of rape by two White women occurred during the “Great Migration” and led to the false conviction and imprisonment of nine young Black youths, aged 12 to 19, who were “hoboing”.  What is the name of this case where individual civil rights were violated, and in which state did it occur?

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Historical Notes

For a very long time, it has been an accepted practice for anybody who could, to hitch a ride on a freight train. The practice was and is called “hoboing.”  This illegal use of freight trains was a common mode of transportation for those living during the Depression, both white and black, who wanted to search for jobs in the new industries in the North, Midwest, and West.  In 1931, nine Black boys, who ranged in age from 12 to 19, hitched a ride aboard a Southern Railroad freight train in Chattanooga, Tennessee, en route to Memphis, Tennessee. Their names were: Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris and Roy Wright. They rode in a train car with other White children and adults who also were “hoboing” to Memphis.

On March 25th, a fight started between the Black and White youths when apparently one of the White youth stepped on the hand of a Black youth. When one of the White youth was about to be thrown from the train, one of the Black youth, Haywood Patterson, grabbed his hand and saved his life. Coincidentally, Patterson was the first youth that was injured when a White youth stepped on his hand. When the train arrived at Paint Rock, Alabama, the police and a mob of angry White men with guns were waiting for the Black youth to arrest them. Apparently, the train’s conductor had reported the fight while the train was en route.  However, the Black youth were arrested and charged with raping two white women – Victoria Price and Ruby Bates – instead of fighting with the White youths.

What emerged from their arrests is yet another one of the tragedies of Southern-style justice during the Jim Crow era.  Seven of the nine Black boys were held in prison for six years or more prior to their trials, and many inconsistencies were uncovered over the course of the trials. For example, Victoria Price indicated that she was gang raped by six of the boys, and the court concluded that the others must have been involved and the other White woman, Ruby Bates, “was likely raped” as well.  The physician hired by the prosecution strengthened the case for the defense, indicating that neither of the women had evidence or attitude of having been gang raped when examined. It was reported during the trial that one of the women was a prostitute. The boys were represented in court by unpaid real estate attorneys, one of whom was rumored to have a drinking problem, both of whom were apparently incompetent or unwilling to search for the truth.

The Scottsboro Trials were among the most infamous episodes of legal injustice in the Jim Crow South. The cases were tried and appealed in Alabama and twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite evidence that exonerated the accused and even a retraction by Ruby Bates that she had never even met the boys prior to the trial, the state pursued the case and all-White juries delivered guilty verdicts that initially carried the death penalty. Several of the accused were sentenced to prison terms and all endured long stays in prison as the case made its way through the legal system. The case later served as one of the inspirations for Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Even though the men were ultimately either paroled or exonerated, they carried “the Scottsboro Boys” stigma throughout their lives. Some developed drinking problems, contracted tuberculosis in prison, suffered from depression and mental illness, and Roy Wright shot his wife and committed suicide after returning from the war in 1959. In 1976, Clarence Norris obtained a pardon from Governor George C. Wallace and the state parole board.

The legacy of the Scottsboro Boys is included in the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro. It is also told first hand in Haywood Patterson’s book Scottsboro Boy (1950). Twenty-nine years later, Clarence Norris published “The Last of the Scottsboro Boys”. Norris was the last of the group to pass away; he died in 1989.

The state of Alabama issued a posthumous pardon to three of the Scottsboro Boys in November 2013, fully 80 years after they were wrongly accused.