- Scottsboro and Its Legacy: The Cases That Challenged American Legal and Social Justice
As the editors of Praeger’s Crime, Media, and Popular Culture series write in their introduction to this volume, “the Scottsboro Boys case is ‘one of the essentials’ for those readers seeking to understand the interactions of American social and cultural history with criminal justice” (p. xi). The case—or cases, as James R. Acker’s subtitle reminds us—began on March 25, 1931, with the arrest of nine black youths, ages 13 to 20, in Paint Rock, Alabama. They had stolen a ride on a slow-moving freight train bound from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Memphis, and some of them had gotten into a fight with several white men who were also on the train. The defeated whites complained to a nearby stationmaster, [End Page 464] who phoned ahead for a posse. A search of the train turned up the nine black youths as well as two white women who, after about twenty minutes, began to claim that they had been raped. All nine of the black riders were quickly jailed as a lynch mob formed, prompting the sheriff to call the governor, who called out the National Guard. Thousands of whites were also on hand for the trials, which took place two weeks later and provided the young defendants with only scant legal representation. All-white juries convicted eight of the nine boys and sentenced them to death. The ninth, thirteen-year-old Roy Wright, ought to have been tried in juvenile court under Alabama law. Instead, he was tried separately in the same courtroom, and the all-white jury in his case deadlocked. All agreed that he was guilty, but seven of the twelve jurors insisted on the death penalty even though prosecutors had not asked for it. The result was a mistrial.
The story might have ended there, with the anticipated lynching replaced by a legal lynching, had the Communist-backed International Labor Defense (ILD) not gotten involved. Over the next several years, the ILD turned the case into a cause célèbre and outmaneuvered the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for the loyalty of the Scottsboro Boys and their parents. First, the ILD appealed the Boys’ convictions, winning a major victory in 1932 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. Alabama that a defendant’s right to counsel requires a certain level of competence on the part of his defenders. Next, the ILD persuaded Samuel Leibowitz, one of the nation’s most prominent criminal lawyers, to take the Boys’ case. During a second set of trials in the spring of 1933, Leibowitz was able to undermine the credibility of one of the alleged rape victims, Victoria Price, while the other, Ruby Bates, recanted her story altogether. Nonetheless, an all-white jury convicted Haywood Patterson, the first of the nine defendants to be retried, and once again sentenced him to death. Several weeks later, the trial judge, James E. Horton, Jr., set aside the jury’s verdict and ordered a new trial. Following his conscience cost Horton his judicial career.
A third set of trials under a new judge again ended in death sentences, followed by appeals. In April 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Norris v. Alabama, ruling that the state’s longstanding practice of excluding blacks from juries was unconstitutional. As Acker writes, “The second Supreme Court decision in the Scottsboro cases would irrevocably alter the face of Southern justice,” even though the change took time (p. 144). Meanwhile, the Scottsboro Boys languished in prison. None was ever able to convince an Alabama jury of his innocence, and ultimately four of the nine were convicted of rape, though none was put to death. A fifth saw the rape charge dropped after he pleaded guilty to assaulting an officer, and the other four were released without further trials, having already been in prison for six and a half years...