The Scottsboro Boys’ Case

A crowd gathers on one side of the courthouse square in Scottsboro during the trials.

In 1931, nine black youths ages 13 to 19 were pulled from a train, arrested and taken to nearby Scottsboro, Alabama, where they were jailed, tried and declared guilty of raping two white women — a crime that never occurred. All-white, male juries quickly sentenced eight to death. A long-term and ultimately successful campaign to save the youths’ lives and, in time, exonerate them led to one of the most dramatic and revealing civil rights struggles in U.S. history.

Train ride to tragedy

With the Great Depression gripping the nation after the stock-market crash of 1929, people hopped freight trains to travel from one city to the next in search of work. A fight between blacks and whites broke out on a train in Jackson County on March 25, 1931. Trying to avoid arrest, two women on the train falsely accused nine black youths of raping them. It was an inflammatory allegation in the Jim-Crow South, where many whites were attempting to preserve supremacy just 66 years after the end of the Civil War.

The Scottsboro Boys with defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz in the Decatur, Alabama, jail (1933). Haywood Patterson is sitting with Leibowitz. Behind them, left to right, are: Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems and Roy Wright.

The accused were shackled and taken to Scottsboro, the Jackson County seat, and an angry mob gathered for their trials just two weeks after the arrests. On April 9, a judge sentenced the eight convicted defendants to death by electrocution. He declared a mistrial in the case of the youngest defendant, 13-year-old Roy Wright, after seven jurors insisted on the death penalty even though the prosecution had not sought it.

Miscarriage of justice

After the U.S. Supreme Court overrode the lower court’s verdict in 1932 on grounds of inadequate counsel, Circuit Judge James E. Horton was appointed to preside over a new set of trials in Decatur, Alabama, 50 miles west of Scottsboro. But after Horton suspended the jury’s death sentence for Haywood Patterson, the first youth tried in Decatur, and called for a new trial, the Alabama Supreme Court took him off the case. As a messenger from the Alabama attorney general’s office had warned, Horton lost his re-election bid in 1934. Decades later Horton maintained he had no regrets, invoking what he said was a hundred-year tradition in his family summed up by a Latin phrase that translates to “Let justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

Judge James E. Horton listens to the testimony of Dr. R. R. Bridges during Haywood Patterson’s second trial in Decatur, Alabama

Despite defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz’s presentation of strong evidence alleged victims Victoria Price and Ruby Bates fabricated the rape story to avoid being charged with vagrancy and prostitution and Bates’ own testimony that she and Price made up the story, white male juries in Alabama refused to accept the retraction and state officials continued the legal persecution of the Scottsboro Boys another four years. Simultaneously, a series of defense appeals kept the case alive as rallies and parades in support of the youths took place in cities around the globe and citizen groups — including one comprised of white Alabamians in Birmingham — formed to promote the boys’ cause. With media reports publicizing the legal proceedings, including a second U.S. Supreme Court hearing, the eyes of the nation and the world were on Alabama.

Free at last

Left to right, Scottsboro Boys Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson and Roy Wright with Samuel Leibowitz in Nashville the day after their release, July 25, 1937.

Eventually all nine Scottsboro Boys were paroled, freed or pardoned. Each spent at least six years in prison, some much longer. Andrew Wright was the last to go free, in 1950.

Read a more detailed account of the trials.


The Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement

A May 1933 march in support of the Scottsboro Boys in Washington, D.C. Janie Patterson, mother of Haywood Patterson, is directly in front of the banner.

During the seven years in which the Scottsboro Boys case made its way through the state and federal judicial system, it became an encapsulation of the American South’s troubled post-Reconstruction history of racial violence, the social and political upheaval of the Great Depression and the lingering cultural divide between North and South. In the process, the saga in many ways inaugurated the modern civil rights movement.*
*Partially excerpted from the Encyclopedia of Alabama, article by Daren Salter

Legal Precedents

The Scottsboro Boys’ case is recognized internationally as one of the most infamous in legal history. The U.S. Supreme Court twice heard arguments in the case, leading to two landmark civil-rights precedents regarding:

  • The right to counsel – The Court ruled the defendants were denied the right to effective counsel in their first trial when the judge named all members of the Jackson County bar to defend them, effectively diffusing final responsibility for their case. (Patterson vs. Alabama, 1932)
  • Nondiscrimination in juror rolls – Because Jackson County juror rolls excluded blacks, the Court ruled the defendants had not received equal protection under the law. (Norris vs. Alabama, 1935)

Artistic and Cultural Influence

The Scottsboro Boys case is widely believed to have been an inspiration for Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 1930s the boys’ struggle also prompted a host of songs, dramas, artwork and poetry around the world.
The saga has continued to inspire artists in the decades since, and the Scottsboro Boys story lives on today through the efforts of artists and scholars. The Scottsboro Boys, an original musical featuring songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb and a book by David Thompson, is set to open on Broadway in October, 2010, after extended runs at New York City’s Vineyard Theatre and Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The cast recorded an album featuring songs from the musical in April 2010. The musical won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical.
Leadbelly recorded a song, “The Scottsboro Boys”. Dan T. Carter published his award-winning book, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, in 1970. A movie, Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, aired on NBC in 1976. James Goodman published Stories of Scottsboro, a recounting of the Scottsboro tragedy from multiple perspectives, in 1994, and a PBS documentary, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, was released in 2000.