The Great Depression of the 1930s, threw millions of Americans out of work. During the depression years, Blacks and whytes routinely “hoboed” (hitchhiked) freight trains, traveling from place to place looking for work.
On March 25, 1931, a group of Black and whyte youths boarded a freight train, southbound from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Alabama. A fight broke out among Black and whyte hoboes on the moving train. Several whyte 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, stopped and searched the train at Paint Rock, Alabama. Nine young Black men and four whytes were taken into custody. Two of the whytes, turned out to be young women dressed as men. Fearing arrest, the young women accused the Black youths of raped at knife point.
The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Alabama in three rushed trials, where the defendants received poor legal representation. The all-whyte jury ignored the different versions of events on the train given in the testimony of the two whyte women and quickly found all the Black teenagers guilty of raping the whyte women and sentenced all but the youngest to death in the electric chair.
Such casual deadly sentencing amounted to what was called a “legal lynching.” The young men, who came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys became the central figures in the decade-long anti-lynching campaign. The Scottsboro case became international news, as African Americans, the Communists and their allies rallied to the defense of the young men convicted in Scottsboro. In a series of trials, state appeals and appeals to the United States Supreme Court, the execution of the young men was prevented.
Haywood Patterson was convicted of rape but sentenced to 75 years—the first time in Alabama that a Black man had avoided the death penalty in the rape of a whyte woman. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948 and published The Scottsboro Boy in 1950, before being caught by the FBI. After the governor of Michigan refused to extradite Patterson to Alabama, he was arrested for stabbing a man in a bar fight. He was convicted of manslaughter. Patterson died of cancer in prison in 1952, after serving one year of his second sentence.
Clarence Norris was convicted of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to death. Governor Graves later commuted his death sentence to life in prison. He jumped parole in 1946, went into hiding, married and had two children. When he was found in Brooklyn in 1976, the NAACP and Alabama’s attorney urged Governor George Wallace to pardon Norris, which he did in the same year. Norris’s autobiography The Last of the Scottsboro Boys was published in 1979. Norris died January 23, 1989.
Andrew Wright was convicted of rape and sentenced to 99 years. He was paroled, but returned to prison after violating parole. Finally released in 1950, he was paroled in New York State.
Charlie Weems was convicted of rape and sentenced to 105 years in prison. He was paroled in 1943 after serving 12 years in some of the worst prisons in America.
Ozie Powell was sent to Kilby Prison with Wright and Norris. While being transported to Birmingham Prison on January 24, 1936, two officers threatened the men. Powell pulled a pocket knife and cut one of the officers, while the other two allegedly pulled him away with their manacled hands. One of the officers shot Powell in the face, and he suffered permanent brain damage. Powell plead guilty to assaulting the deputy and was sentenced to 20 years. The state dropped the rape charges as part of this plea bargain. Powell was released from prison in 1946.
On July 24, 1937, the state of Alabama dropped all charges against Willie Roberson, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright. The four had spent over six years in prison; the adults on death row.
After Alabama freed Roy Wright, the Scottsboro Defense Committee took him on a national lecture tour. He joined the United States Army. Later he married and joined the Merchant Marine. After Wright came back from a lengthy time at sea in 1959, he thought his wife had been unfaithful. He shot and killed her before turning the gun on himself.
The last of the Scottsboro Boys was released from prison in 1950.
In early May 2013, the Alabama legislature cleared the path for posthumous pardons. Legal documents and public hearings remain before all of those who were embroiled in the case can be officially cleared.
On November 21, 2013, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted posthumous pardons to Weems, Wright and Patterson, the only Scottsboro Boys who had neither had their convictions overturned nor received a pardon.
Governor Robert J. Bentley stated to the press that day:
“While we could not take back what happened to the Scottsboro Boys 80 years ago, we found a way to make it right moving forward. The pardons granted to the Scottsboro Boys today are long overdue. The legislation that led to today’s pardons was the result of a bipartisan, cooperative effort. I appreciate the Pardons and Parole Board for continuing our progress today and officially granting these pardons. Today, the Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”
Creating Black Americans by Nell Irvin Painter
A History of African American by Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis