Nine Scottsboro Boys Spurred NAACP Concerns for Criminal Case Law
By Earnest McBride
2006. Earnest McBride, Jackson, Mississippi
The Depression-era economy caused many young men and women, black and white, to ride trains as hoboes across the South in search of better opportunities or even for the sheer adventure of travel.
Racial conflict frequently followed the youths from their segregated communities into the boxcars when different racial groups vied for the same spaces.
On March 25, 1931, two dozen young job seekers were hoboeing on the Southern Railroad train going from Memphis back to Chattanooga via Huntsville, Alabama. A rock-throwing battle broke out when one of the white youths stepped on the hand of a black youth, Haywood Patterson, who was holding onto the side of the train. Patterson's three buddies came to his rescue and forced some of the white boys off the train.
When the white boys reported the incident to local Alabama officials, the stationmaster wired ahead to the next town, Paint Rock, near Scottsboro, and leading town officials hurriedly organized a posse to capture the nine black youths remaining on the train. Riding along with the black youths were two young white women, one of whom accused six of the black men with forcible rape. One member of the posse surmised that if six of the captives had raped the first woman, Victoria Price, then the other three had raped the second, Ruby Bates.
The nine black youths were taken to the jail at Scottsboro and a lynch mob began gathering later that same day. Alabama Governor B. M. Miller, however, dispatched the National Guard to protect the men. All nine were indicted by the Grand Jury less than 10 days after their arrest. By mid-April, eight of the men had been convicted and sentenced to death.
Price, though only 20 at the time, had already been married three times and was reportedly a part-time prostitute. Bates, a 17-year-old mill worker, on the other hand, went along with the rape accusation only because of the pressure the law enforcement officers subjected her to. She would change her testimony and act as a defense witness when a new trial was set for one of the accused in 1933.
The new trial resulted from the intervention of the Communist Party and its legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD), who took on the defense of the nine black youths. Because of the civil rights implications of the case, worldwide attention was drawn to the case.
The NAACP, whose mission was to protect the civil and Constitutional rights of black Americans, was pressured into taking up the defense of the Scottsboro boys by many of their members who felt the Communist Party had usurped the NAACP's role as the defenders of black rights.
After months of bickering with the ILD and their Communist sponsors, and despite having the services of famed civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow at their command, the NAACP pulled out of the case in 1932.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions of all nine of the Scottsboro boys in 1935 on the grounds of exclusion of blacks from jury rolls. By 1937, after five trials and retrials for one defendant and three retrials for the others, one defendant, Clarence Norris, remained on death row. Four others were sentenced to 75 or more years in prison. The other four had the rape charges dropped.
In 1938, the five convicts were given parole and clemency hearings by the governor of Alabama. The clemency was denied, but all four were eventually paroled in either 1944 or 1946. The fifth man, Patterson, escaped from prison in 1948 and was arrested and imprisoned in Michigan in 1950. He died in prison in 1952. Clarence Norris, the last of the Scottsboro Boys died in 1989