For those not familiar with the history of The Scottsboro Boys, here is a history lesson.
The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. The trials and repeated retrials of the Scottsboro Boys sparked an international uproar and produced two landmark U.S. Supreme Court verdicts, even as the defendants were forced to spend years battling the courts and enduring the harsh conditions of the Alabama prison system. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/scottsboro-boys
On March 25, 1931, on a Southern Railroad freight train near Scottsboro, in Jackson County, Alabama, a group searching for work were involved in a racially-charged fight that broke out between passengers. Local police arrested nine black youths, ranging in age from 13 to 19. When deputies questioned Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, two white women who were also riding the freight train, who faced charges of vagrancy and prostitution, they accused the boys of raping them while onboard the train.
The nine teenagers—Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andrew and Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, and Eugene Williams were arrested and put in jail in Scottsboro.
News spread quickly of the alleged rape and an angry white mob surrounded the jail, leading the local sheriff to call in the Alabama National Guard to prevent a lynching.
April 1931, an all-white, all-male jury quickly convicted the Scottsboro Boys and sentenced eight of them to death. The youngest, only13, was not convicted.
In March 1932 the Alabama Supreme Court upheld all but one of the original convictions. Eugene Williams was the lone exception, and the court ruled that he never should have been tried as an adult. The lawyer, Joseph Brodsky, argued that the remaining defendants had been unfairly judged because there were no blacks on the jury, but the court ruled that the state had the right “to fix qualifications for jurors.”
The Scottsboro Boys’ case is recognized internationally as one of the most infamous in legal history. Two additional groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions in 1935 followed on jury diversification: Patterson v. State of Alabama ( 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). and Norris v. State of Alabama ( Nondiscrimination in juror rolls – Because Jackson County juror rolls excluded blacks, the Court ruled the defendants had not received equal protection under the law).
The trials of the Scottsboro Boys, the two Supreme Court verdicts they produced, and the international uproar over their treatment helped fuel the rise of the civil rights movement later in the 20th century and left a lasting imprint on the nation’s legal and cultural landscape.
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.
The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center
Information from the Scottsboro Boys Trials can be found on display at the Scottsboro Boys Museum & Cultural Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. The center opened in 2010 in the historic Joyce Chapel United Methodist Church, adjacent to the same railroad tracks that carried the defendants from Chattanooga to Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. Former slaves constructed a church — originally the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church of Scottsboro — on the site in 1878. It’s the oldest standing African American church in Jackson County.
The mission of The Scottsboro Boy’s Museum and Cultural Center states: The Scottsboro Boy’s Museum and Cultural Center commemorates the lives and legacy of nine young African American males who, in the 1930’s, became international symbols of race-based injustice in the American South. Our mission celebrates the positive actions of those of all colors, creeds and origins who have taken a stand against the tyranny of racial oppression. We are committed to advancing reconciliation and healing, while promoting civil rights and an appreciation of cultural diversity worldwide.
You will find photos, memorabilia, and historical documents in the museum. It is also on the Civil Rights Trail. The Scottsboro Boy’s case is widely believed to have been an inspiration for Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Events are held throughout the year. Visit https://scottsboroboysmuseum.org/ for more information.