On April 9, 1931, a white judge in northern Alabama summarily sentenced nine black male youths to death after local all-white juries had convicted the young black men of raping two white women on March 25, principally on the women's testimony. In vain the young men insisted upon their innocence. A long-term and ultimately successful struggle to save the youths' lives and, in time, to exonerate them led to one of the most dramatic and revealing civil rights struggles in U.S. history.
A stalwart defense effort led initially by the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal wing of the Communist Party, combined with international as well as domestic support campaigns to keep the young men's cause alive. On one hand, the word-of-mouth reportage and extensive newspaper coverage played upon the intertwined psychosexual and interracial aspects of the alleged crime. On the other, the youths' defense teams and innumerable supporters consistently emphasized how those very same aspects combined to render a fair trial virtually impossible in the white supremacist social order of the Jim Crow South.
Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charley Weems, Eugene Williams, and Andrew Wright found that as black male youths in the Jim Crow South, neither innocence nor adolescence protected them. Leroy Wright, a thirteen year old and a ninth accused youth, was never sentenced to life imprisonment due to his young age. Nevertheless, the inflammatory allegation of having raped white women, especially in such a high-profile case, haunted forever all of their lives.
In the April 1933 retrial of Haywood Patterson, Defense Attorney Samuel Leibowitz demonstrated that Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, the alleged victims, had fabricated the rape charge as a way to avoid being charged with vagrancy and prostitution. At that same retrial, Ruby Bates went so far as to recant her testimony against all the defendants and to speak out on behalf of the innocence of Patterson and the other Scottsboro Boys. White male juries in Alabama, however, refused to accept Bates's retraction and new story, and continued in their legal persecution of the Scottsboro Boys. As a result, a series of defense appeals kept the cause alive. In Powell v. Alabama (1932), the Supreme Court ordered new trials for all eight defendants, ruling that in capital cases defendants merited a real, as against a pro forma, defense. In Norris v. Alabama (1935), the highest court overturned the convictions of Norris and Patterson and demanded that the state court retry the case because of the systematic exclusion of blacks from the juries.
The saga of the Scottsboro Boys demonstrated the deepseated, racist, white fear of the alleged black male rapist, in this case in the guise of youth. It likewise illustrated the power of this fear to override evidence and reason in the determination of guilt and innocence. Indeed, the issue was neither guilt nor innocence; rather, it was the maintenance of white supremacy and the repression of black freedom. Nevertheless, the concerted and inspiring efforts to undo the wrongs against the Scottsboro Boys contributed significantly to the ongoing African-American Freedom Struggle and the interrelated struggle to defeat Jim Crow.
Carter, Dan T. 1976. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, 2nd ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Goodman, James. 1994. Stories of Scottsboro: The Rape Case that Shocked 1930's America and Revived the Struggle for Equality. New York: Pantheon.
WALDO E. MARTIN JR.