Scottsboro Boys

   Scottsboro, Alabama, was the location of a trial that became an international cause célèbre in the 1930s. In March 1931, nine black youths ranging in ages from 12 to 21 were accused of raping two white women while riding a freight train traveling from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Memphis, Tennessee. The nine boys were Roy and Andy Wright, Eugene Williams, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Charlie Weems, and Willie Roberson. They were arrested in Paint Rock, Alabama, and sent to Scottsboro to face trial. Twelve-year-old Roy Wright was released when the judge declared a mistrial, but an allwhite male jury found the other eight youths guilty, and they were all sentenced to death, despite a lack of strong evidence against them and the unreliable nature of the two main witnesses. The Communist Party of the United States of America immediately mobilized an appeal for the black teenagers through their legal department, the International Labor Defense (ILD). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mobilized separately on the boys’ behalf and called on the famous labor lawyer, Clarence Darrow, to defend the case, but it was the ILD that initially acted for the boys.
   In 1932, in Powell v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that the African Americans had not had an adequate defense and ordered a retrial. In a second trial, the jury once again convicted and called for the death penalty, but the presiding judge overturned the conviction on the grounds that the evidence of the two women in the case was unreliable. A third trial was held with the same result as the previous two, and once again the case was taken to the Supreme Court.
   In Norris v. Alabama (1935), the court overturned the convictions on grounds of discrimination due to the exclusion of blacks from the juries. The Alabama state prosecutors dropped the charges against four of the youths but brought five back to trial and once again secured guilty convictions. One of the accused, Clarence Norris, was sentenced to death; three were given sentences ranging from 75 to 99 years; and one, Ozzie Powell, was sentenced to 25 years for assaulting a police officer. The Scottsboro Defense Committee, coordinated by the NAACP, was able to secure the reduction of the death penalty for Norris to life imprisonment. By 1950, all of the boys had been freed on parole or appeal, or in one case, as with Patterson, escaped.

Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . . 2015.

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