Imagine walked a young white man. Every
Imagine being a black teenager in the south amid the great depression. It was hard enough for whites to find jobs during this time; I can’t even begin to fathom what it would be like being black seeking a job. Many blacks sought hoboing as a common pastime seeing it as an adventure to get them from one small job to another. And this is where the story of the Scottsboro Boys begins.
Aboard a southern railroad car was a young black youth named Haywood Patterson. He clutched to the side of the car as it careened back and forth over the rusty tracks. Across the top of the car walked a young white man. Every time this man would walk past Patterson he would step on his fingers. Patterson finally said to the man, “whenever you need to get through, tell me and I will move my hand”.
The young man believed that he did not have to ask someone to move their hands, especially a nigger. This outraged him and he began to shout obscenities and racial slurs at Patterson. Soon after, a stone throwing fight erupted between the white hobos and the black hobos that were riding on the train. All but one white youth was forced of the train by the rocks. This white youth named Orville Gilley was pulled back on. The train itself was picking up speed and Gilley could have gotten killed.
A local stationmaster was told the “attack” by the white hobos that had been thrown off of the train. This stationmaster wired ahead to the next stationmaster to let him know of the situation. As the train slowed down and came to a stop in Paint Rock, Alabama, those that were accused of the future crime had no telling what they were going to be up against. Once in Paint Rock, 9 black youths were rounded up, tied together and taken to prison in Scottsboro Al. Here the boys were placed in a jail cell awaiting their charges. Little did they know an additional charge was going to be added that never even crossed their minds.
While in Paint Rock 2 young women greeted the Posse that came to round up the men from the train. One of these women (Victoria Price) told the posse that she had been raped by a gang of 12 blacks with pistols and knives (Linder, n.d.).They were escorted into the jail so that Victoria could point out her attackers. Here she claimed 6 of the 9 men had raped her. That’s when a guard replied “If those six had Miss Price, it stands for reason the others had Miss Bates” (Linder, n.d.).The accused turned out to be: Haywood Patterson, Andy Wright, Eugene Williams, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson and Roy Wright.
Let me tell you about the accusers in this case, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Both women were from Huntsville, Al and daughters of widows. They grew up in the worst section of town living in shacks and associating with Negroes. Prior to Paint Rock, they had been working in Margaret Mill which produced cotton. The mill had shut down and they joined the other hobos seeking work (Goodman, 1994, pp20-21).
When these ladies got older they were said to have fornicated with Negroes also. Now you have to understand that in the south there was a stigma between white woman and black men, when a white woman sleeps with a black man its considered rape (in the south). Now when these women were found on the train with Negroes, they did not want to be thought of as adulterers and tramps. Instead they claimed rape so that they could be thought of as southern women, poor but virtuous (Goodman, 1994, pp20-21).
During their stay at the jail, the Scottsboro Boys attracted many people, and not always the nicest. One evening a lynch mob was hanging around the outside hoping that there could be a lynching. Their plans were foiled because Governor B.M. Miller ordered the National Guard to protect the suspects.
On March 30th, 1931, a grand jury indicts all 9 boys. The boys were appointed council; however this was not an easy task. No one at the time wanted to represent them. A unpaid and unprepared Chattanooga real estate attorney named Stephen Ruddy agreed to take on the case as long as he had help. Up stepped local attorney Milo Moody. Moody was a 70year old man who hadn’t tried a case in years. Their incompetence showed during the April 6th-9th trials before Judge A.E. Hawkins. Eight of the 9 boys are tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The case against the youngest boy, Roy Wright, whom at the time was 13, ended in a hung jury (PBS, 1999-2000).
This turned into a high profile case. Because of the short and speedy trials, the age of the defendants and severity of the sentences national organizations were being sought upon to take up the case. You would have thought the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Color People) would have jumped at the opportunity. However they were worried about the charges of rape, the political impositions and what damage it would have on the organization if the boys were found guilty. Instead the I.L.D (International Labor Defense) took charge. The I.L.D. was a branch of the Communist Party. They saw this as a recruiting tool among the southern blacks and northern liberals. Later the NAACP would regret their decision not to take the case of the Scottsboro boys.
In January, 1932 the Alabama Supreme Court, affirmed all but one of the eight convictions and death sentences. Eugene Williams who was 13 should not have been tried as an adult. The cases were appealed to the US Supreme Court. Here the convictions were overturned (Powell vs. Alabama). Their ruling was based under the Fourteenth amendment that the defendants were denied their right to counsel, thus violating their rights to due process (Linder, n.d.).
The I.L.D selected two attorneys to represent the Scottsboro Boys in retrials. Samuel Liebowitz served as the lead defense attorney and was assisted by Joseph Brodsky who was the I.L.D’s chief attorney. The prosecutor in the retrials was Al’s new attorney general Thomas Knight Jr. Both parties were not aware of the adventure that was to following in the Alabama courts of law.
The second trial of Haywood Patterson began on March 30, 1933 before Judge James Horton. Liebowitz moved right away to quash indictments that Negroes had been excluded from jury rolls (Linder, n.d.).The motion was denied. On April 3, Victoria Price was called to the stand. Examination by the prosecutor was very brief, covering the essential facts.
Liebowitz however cross-examination was pitiless. Price had claimed that prior to taking the Southern Railroad train she had stayed at a boarding house in Chattanooga called Callie Broochies. Liebowitz brought this out to everyone in the court room, not to mention that she was an adulterer who had consorted with a Jack Tiller in a hobo jungle 2 days prior to the rape. He continued to say that she was not crying, bleeding or seriously bruised after the alleged “gang rape”. And when she met with the Posse in Paint Rock it was to deter attention away from her own sins. Liebowitz did not now what he was in for when he began his questioning. Price was sarcastic, evasive and used her own ignorance/poor memory to her own advantage.
The prosecutions witnesses were both good and bad. Arthur Woodall, a member of the posse that rounded up the men in Paint Rock, testified that he had found a knife on one of the boys. Ory Dobbins, the prosecutions eye witness, testified that he had seen the defendants grab both Price and Bates and leap from the train. When asked what the girls were wearing he claimed dresses. What was so funny about this is that the girls were wearing overalls at that time. The doctor who examined the girls, Dr. R.R. Bridges, confirmed that here was semen in the girl’s vaginas however it was non-motile. Also the girls were calm, composed and free of bleeding from the vagina (Linder, n.d.).
The defense now had their witnesses on the stand. Dallas Ramsey testified that he saw Price in the hobo jungle she denied visiting. One of the Scottsboro Boys, Willie Roberson testified that he was suffering from a serious venereal disease the day of the alleged rape and could not have done it. Their most spectacular witness was Lester Carter. A traveling companion of Bates and Price claimed he had met them and Prices’ boyfriend Jack Tiller at the hobo jungle. He even claimed to have consummated with Ruby Bates that night.
Before Liebowitz could rest his case, Ruby Bates appeared in the court room. The past few months she hadn’t been in sight. She admitted that she had a troubled conscious and after advice from a minister in NY returned to AL to tell the truth. Bates claimed there was no rape, was never touched and that Price told her to go along with the story.
The Jury returned on April 8th with a guilty verdict and sentenced Patterson to death. On June 22nd, Judge Horton convened in his courtroom to listen to the defenses motion for a new trial. Horton new deep down that Price was lying about the rape. “After Dr. Bridges presented his medical testimony in the trial, the prosecution had requested that Dr. John Lynch, originally a prosecution witness, be excused from testifying. After Horton excused the young doctor, he was approached by Lynch outside the courthouse men’s room. Here he told Horton that he knew the girls were lying and said so straight to their faces. In return he got a laugh from the young ladies. With being a new medical doctor, Lynch did not want to put his career on the line by testifying. Horton understood this (Linder, n.d.).Horton ordered a new trial.
Knight agreed to go ahead with the prosecutions. The prosecution also succeeded in getting the trials transferred to a new courtroom. They would now be presided over by Judge William Callahan. During these trials, Roy Wright and Eugene Williams trials were sent to juvenile court. Callahan set a goal of 3 days for completing the trials. He leaned to the prosecution throughout the whole trial favoring every objection and overruling the defense. In the end guilty verdicts were returned quickly for both Patterson and Norris. Liebowitz vowed to appeal immediately, so Callahan agreed to postpone the remaining trails until the appeals were over.
In February 1935, Liebowitz got the Supreme Court to hear his argument on the Patterson and Norris cases. He believed the convictions should be overturned due to the fact that Alabama had excluded blacks from its jury rolls and that the rolls themselves were forged. Upon examination of the rolls it was found to be true and the convictions were overturned. Liebowitz hoped the state would settle and not want to proceed. Unfortunately he was wrong.
In January 1936, Liebowitz agreed to let a local attorney named Charles Watts play the more visible role and he would watch from the sidelines. Again Patterson was convicted of rape, the difference this time is that he was not sentenced to death but 75 years in prison. “The verdict represented the first time in history of Alabama that a black man convicted of raping a white woman had not been sentenced to death” (Linder, n.d.).
This was also the same year there was talk of a compromise. Knight met secretly with Liebowtiz to discuss the compromise. The cases were starting to drain Alabama both financially and politically. He offered to drop the prosecutions of 3, and give the others no more than 10 years in jail for either rape or assault. Both lawyers knew that they were never going to get a trial that didn’t end without a conviction. Leibowitz agreed to the compromise but unfortunately never got to see it completed. Knight died suddenly in 1937.
Keep in mind that 7 of the Scottsboro boys were still in jail awaiting their trials and it had been 6 years up to this point. The third trial of Clarence Norris began on Monday, July 12th, 1937. Judge Callahan rushed ahead and by Wednesday morning the jury had a death sentence. Attorney Watts had fallen ill during this time and left everything to Liebowitz. July 21st, Andy Wright is sentenced to 99 years. July 22nd, Charley Weems is sentenced to 75 years. July 24th Ozie Powell pleads guilty to assaulting a sheriff and is sentenced to 20 years. On this same day, Rape charges against the last four defendants: Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright are dropped (PBS, 1999-2000).
In 1938 there was a chance for the remaining five Scottsboro Boys to be pardoned by Governor Bibb Graves. Again this did not favor the boys. At the interview, Patterson was found carrying a knife, Ozie Powell refused to answer any questions presented to him by Graves, and Norris was in a battle with Patterson and threatened to kill him if released. Overall none of the boys admitted to the rape and knowledge of it, so no pardons came.
Eventually through paroles or escape all of the Scottsboro Boys found their way out of Alabama (Linder, n.d.).Andy Wright was the last to leave Alabama in 1950. Some of the boys wrote books on their experiences. The case showed just how indifferent jurors were in the south during the 1930’s, how two women could ruin the lives of 9 men and how politically minded everyone was involved in the trial. The Scottsboro Trials was the only case in history of the US that produced the most trials, convictions, reversals and retrials. In the end this case allowed juries to be open to blacks and helped to ease racial tensions in both the south and north.
Goodman, J. (1994). Stories of Scottsboro; The rape case that shocked 1930’s America and revived the struggle for equality. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Norris, C., & Washington, C. D. (1979). The Last of the Scottsboro Boys an Autobiography. Toronto, Canada: Putnam Books.
Linder, D.O. (n.d). The Trials of the Scottsboro Boys. Retrieved March 14, 2005, from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/scottsboro/SB_acct.html
PBS. (1999-2000). Scottsboro Timeline. Retrieved March 27, 2005, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/timeline/index.html