The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: The Scottsboro Case (1931)

By Richard Wormser for PBS, 2002

During the 1930s, much of the world's attention was riveted on the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black youths falsely charged with raping two white women in Alabama. This case, more than any other event in the South during the 1930s, revealed the barbarous treatment of blacks. The case began on March 25, 1931, when a number of white and black youths were riding on a freight train, traveling to see if they could find work. A fight broke out between a group of black and white hobos, and the whites were thrown off the train. They reported the incident to a stationmaster, who wired ahead for officials to stop the train at a town called Paint Rock. Dozens of armed men rounded up nine black youths and took them to jail. They were about to be charged with assault when two white women, dressed in boys clothing, were discovered hiding on the train. Although there was no evidence connecting the youth to the women, the nine youths were charged with raping the women. The women -- who had had sexual relations with some of the white men thrown off the train and fearing prosecution for their sexual activity with the white men -- agreed to testify against the black youths. The trial was held in the town of Scottsboro, Alabama. The all-white jury convicted the nine, and all but the youngest, who was 12 years old, were sentenced to death. 

The announcement of the verdict and sentences brought a roar of protest in the North. The Communist Party USA took charge of the case and carried out a two-fold battle -- in the courts and on the streets. In 1932 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions (Powell v. Alabama) on the grounds that the defendants had not received adequate legal counsel in a capital case. The state of Alabama then retried one of the accused, Haywood Patterson, and once again convicted him. But the trial judge, James Horton, set aside the verdict on the grounds that he did not believe the defendant committed the crime. That decision caused him to be defeated in the next election. The state then retried Clarence Norris to see if the Supreme Court would again intervene. Norris was sentenced to death, but in 1935 decision the U.S. Supreme Court (Norris v. Alabama) overturned this conviction, ruling that the state had excluded blacks from juries. 

Alabama again tried and convicted Haywood Patterson, this time sentencing him to 75 years in prison. Further trials of the rest of the defendants resulted in more reconvictions and appeals until, after persistent pressure both Northern and Southern groups, Alabama freed the four youngest defendants (who had already served six years in jail) and later paroled all but Patterson. Patterson escaped in 1948 and fled to Michigan, where, three years later, he was convicted of manslaughter and died in prison. The last known surviving member of the group, Clarence Norris, fled to the North after his parole in 1946 and was granted a full pardon by the Governor of Alabama in 1976.