On March 25th, 1931—81 years ago today—nine African American teenagers who would soon be known simply as the Scottsboro Boys were arrested on a Southern Railroad train in Alabama.
Accused of rape by two white girls, the nine teenagers (the youngest of whom was only thirteen years old) would spend the next two decades struggling for justice.
The nine were among roughly two dozen young men and women riding the train that day. After a fight between white and African American teenagers, the group was met at the station in Paint Rock, Alabama, where dozens of armed men rushed the train, rounded up the nine black youth they were able to find, and drove them to jail.
Enter Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, two young white mill workers who told the group that they had been raped at gun- and knife-point by a group of twelve African Americans. Price identified six of the men, and the guards assumed the others had attacked Bates.
Alabama Governor B.M. Miller ordered the National Guard to protect the suspects, who were under threat of lynching by several hundred men surrounding the jail. Only twelve days later, the nine went to court—a few at a time—represented by an unpaid real estate attorney and a forgetful and out-of-practice 70-year-old attorney.
The round of trials was a mess. The two ill-prepared defense attorneys offered no witnesses besides the defendants themselves, Price was cross-examined for only a few minutes, Bates was not asked about the contradictions between her testimony and Price’s, the examining doctors were not cross-examined at all, and the defense attorneys did not even offer a closing argument.
By the end of the first round of trials, eight of the nine teenagers had been convicted and sentenced to death.
The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed all but one of the eight convictions and death sentences. Then, the United States Supreme Court overturned the convictions in Powell v. Alabama by a 7-2 vote, ruling that the defendants’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and competent legal counsel had been denied. The Court ordered new trials with new lawyers.
The boys, confined to terrible prison conditions, awaited their second trials, scheduled for 1933. The new trials were characterized by brief questioning of the accusers and testimony by only one eyewitness with questionable credibility.
And then came the biggest shock of the case: accuser Ruby Bates, who had had not been seen for months before the trial, showed up in the courtroom and recanted her testimony—she said there was no rape, and that Price had told her to frame a story (click here to see her testimony).
Shockingly, Bates’ testimony did not change the jury’s minds. Haywood Patterson—the first of the nine to be tried—was pronounced guilty. Judge James Horton suspended the jury’s death sentence, but the Alabama Supreme Court ultimately removed him from the case.
And so it went on, trial after trial, verdict after verdict. By January 1936, defendant Hayward Patterson began his fourth trial—this time, however, he was sentenced to 75 years in prison, rather than death.
Finally, by June 1950—19 years after their arrest—all of the Scottsboro Boys had been paroled, freed, or pardoned. Two of the young men later authored books about their lives.
Although the last of the Scottsboro Boys died in 1989, their story lives on today as disturbing reminder of the racial injustice that plagued America—and particularly the Deep South—for many decades after the Civil War.
For short biographies of each of the individuals involved, click here.
To learn more about the case, check out PBS’s Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.
For more information, click here.
The University of Missouri at Kansas City created an online exhibit about the trials (click here). To read brief quotes by those involved, click here. For links to each of the appellate decisions, click here.
This 1933 editorial provides an enlightening view into the racial prejudice inherent in these trials.
Today, the nine are memorialized in the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center.