March 25, 1931 – the “Scottsboro Boys” – nine African-American teens – were arrested in Alabama and charged with raping two white girls, beginning a 20 year legal nightmare over a crime that never happened.
During the Depression, it was common for young men, and sometimes women, to “hobo” – that is, to hitch rides on trains, traveling the country looking for work. On March 25, 1931, a fight erupted between a group of white youths and a larger group of black youths riding the Southern Railroad’s Chattanooga to Memphis freight train. The white group was eventually forced off of the train, and several of them walked to the nearest station where they reported being assaulted by a gang of young black men.
The stationmaster wired ahead, and a white posse in Paint Rock, Alabama, stopped the train, rounding up every black youth they could find at gunpoint. They took nine black boys, tied them up, and brought them to the local jail in Scottsboro, Alabama.
Along with the posse were two white girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. The girls said that they had been raped by a gang of twelve young black men. In the jail that March 25th, Price pointed out six of the nine black teens taken off of the train as the ones who had raped her. The other three boys were held on the theory that if the first six had raped Price, then the other three must have raped Bates. All were charged with rape, a capital offense.
A crowd of several hundred white men, looking forward to a front row seat to a public hanging, surrounded the Scottsboro jail that night. Their plan for a lynching were foiled, however, when Alabama’s governor, B. M. Miller, sent the National Guard to guard the jail in Scottsboro.
The trials of the Scottsboro Boys began twelve days after their arrest (the cases were split up into four separate trials). Most local newspapers had made their conclusions about the defendants before the trials began. One headline read: “ALL NEGROES POSITIVELY IDENTIFIED BY GIRLS AND ONE WHITE BOY WHO WAS HELD PRISONER WITH PISTOL AND KNIVES WHILE NINE BLACK FIENDS COMMITTED REVOLTING CRIME.” Representing the Boys in their uphill legal battle were two local lawyers: an unpaid, unprepared and real estate attorney who came to court drunk, and a forgetful seventy-year old who hadn’t tried a case in decades.
To say their lawyers were incompetent would be an understatement. One main prosecution witness, Price, was cross-examined for only a few minutes, and the other, Bates, was never asked about the contradictions between her testimony and Price’s. The doctors who examined both girls were never questioned at all. They called the defendants to testify, and they were obviously unprepared, as their testimony was rambling and often contradictory. To top it off, neither lawyer presented a closing argument to the jury.
Not surprisingly, when the four trials were over eight of the nine Scottsboro Boys were convicted and sentenced to death. A mistrial was declared in the case of twelve-year old Roy Wright, when eleven of the jurors held out for death despite the request of the prosecution for only a life sentence in view of his age.
In January, 1932, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed all but one of the eight convictions and death sentences (the Court ruled that Eugene Williams, age thirteen, should have not been tried as an adult). The United States Supreme Court , however, overturned the convictions in the landmark case of Powell vs Alabama. The Supreme Court ruled that the right of the defendants to competent legal counsel, as provided by the 6th Amendment to the Constitution, had been denied by the State of Alabama. There would have to be new trials.
For the new trials, Samuel Liebowitz, a Jewish New York trial lawyer, was hired by the legal arm of the American Communist Party (the NAACP would not get involved in the case) to serve as the lead defense attorney. The first “boy” to be re-tried was Haywood Patterson. Liebowitz’s cross-examination of Price was extensive and confrontational. For four hours he hammered her with questions suggesting that she was a prostitute and adulterer, had had sex with one of the white boys two days earlier, and had concocted the rape story to cover up her own wrong-doings. He got the examining doctor to admit that both Price and Bates were calm and composed when he examined them right after the alleged rape, there was no physical indication that a rape had occurred, and the semen that he recovered from Price was likely more than two days old – too old to have come from the alleged rape. Lester Carter, one of the white boys who had been with Price and Bates on the train, admitted that two days before the alleged rape he had sex with Bates as Price did the same with her boyfriend.
Then, in a dramatic move as if from a Hollywood script, Liebowitz called Ruby Bates as a defense witness. Bates said a troubled conscience and a minister’s advice had prompted her to tell the truth about what happened on March 25, 1931. Bates said that there was no rape, that none of the defendants touched her or even spoke to her, and that the accusations of rape were made up after Price told her “to frame up a story.”
In closing arguments to the jury, Liebowitz demanded that the jury either fully acquit the defendants or give them the death penalty. The prosecutor, in a timeless appeal to Southern sensibilities, asked the jurors if “justice in this case is going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” Liebowitz’s demand for a mistrial was denied.
The next day, however, the jury, after only five minutes of consideration, pronounced Patterson guilty and sentenced him to death. The testimony of Bates wasn’t even considered.
On June 22, 1933, Alabama State Judge James Horton heard a defense motion for a new trial. Hardly anyone held out hope that the motion would be granted. Horton, however, had become convinced that Price was lying. To a stunned courtroom, he announced that he was setting aside the verdict and death sentence and ordering a new trial (in the next local election, Horton was voted out of office).
Unwilling to let “Jew money from New York” decide the case, the state wasted no time in pressing ahead with a new trial. William Callahan, a no nonsense judge, presided over Patterson’s next re-trial. Callahan acted more like a second prosecutor than a judge, sustaining virtually every prosecution objection and overruling nearly every defense objection. He also cut off most of Liebowitz’s questioning of prosecution witnesses. In his instructions to the all-white jury, Callahan told them that they should presume that no white woman in Alabama would consent to sex with a black man. He even failed to give the jury a “not guilty” verdict form to consider, until the prosecutor, fearing another appeal, urged him to do so.
Of course, guilty verdicts were quickly returned. Patterson was once again sentenced to death, and once again, Liebowitz appealed, arguing that the convictions should be overturned because Alabama excluded blacks from serving on juries. The Supreme Court agreed with him again and unanimously ruled that the Alabama system of jury selection – which excluded blacks from serving on juries – was unconstitutional, reversing Patterson’s conviction.
Like a bulldog holding onto a stick, the state decided to once again press ahead with prosecutions. To no-one’s surprise, Patterson was again convicted of rape after another re-trial in 1937. What was surprising, however, was that the jury sentenced him to seventy-five years in prison rather than giving him the death sentence as the prosecution had requested. This was the first time in the history of Alabama that a black man convicted of raping a white woman had not been sentenced to death.
Three more Scottsboro Boys were also re-tried and convicted in 1937. The remaining five had the charges finally dropped against them. By 1950 these three Scottsboro Boys had been paroled and had made their way out of Alabama. Haywood Patterson managed a dramatic escape from prison in 1948 and was able to get to Michigan, where he wrote a book about his life. In 1950 Patterson was arrested by the FBI, but the Governor of Michigan refused Alabama’s extradition request. He died a free man.
Besides the autobiographies written by Patterson and another Scottsboro Boy, Clarence Norris, the trials of the Scottsboro Boys also deeply influenced Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee used the story of the Scottsboro Boys, which she had followed as a child, as the basis of Tom Robinson’s persecution/prosecution.