“Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” is a 2001 PBS documentary in the American Experience series about the notorious trials of nine black teenage boys accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The landmark trial magnified rampant racism, denial of a fair trial, and the continued North-South animosity that existed almost 70 years after the Civil War had ended. The miscarriage of justice on the part of several judges, jurors, and witnesses belies the assumption that justice will prevail in the face of truth and obviously false testimony, including the recanting by one of the victims to all charges. No crime in American history– let alone a crime that never occurred– produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, appeals to the Supreme Court, and retrials as did the “Scottsboro Boys” case of March 25, 1931. The series of trials included two separate appeals to the US Supreme Court resulting in two landmark decisions over a fifteen-year period. The first ruling was that adequate legal representation applies to all citizens. The second ruling declared a constitutional right to a trial by one’s peers, in this case, mandating that the jury include blacks. Spanning the Depression, the Scopes Trial, and the end of World War II, the trial of the Scottsboro Boys foreshadowed the rise of the civil rights movement that would reach a feverish pitch three decades later.
On March 25, 1931, nine black teenage boys, ranging in age from thirteen to nineteen, hopped off a freight train traveling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee to be accused by two young white women (Victoria Price and Ruby Bates) of rape. Arrested in the small town of Scottsboro, found guilty in a rapid set of kangaroo trials, eight of the nine defendants were sent to be executed by electric chair on July 9, less than three months after the trial ended. (The thirteen-year-old defendant was considered too young for execution.)
Many Northerners, particularly in Harlem and in the Communist Party, organized street demonstrations supporting the Scottsboro Boys. The American Communist Party decided to get involved in the battle for equal representation under the Constitution enlisting the renowned lawyer, Sam Leibowitz. Second only to Clarence Darrow (who was willing to take on the case for the NAACP), Leibowitz was known for his brilliance as an attorney. But his overreaching self-confidence would be his downfall, failing to anticipate the “Mason Dixon” animosity by the South, and their hatred of Jews and Northerners, as much as their racism towards blacks. Nonetheless, Sam Leibowitz is a profile in courage.
In October 1932 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Scottsboro trial denied due process to the nine young defendants, who encountered a mob atmosphere and endured poor legal representation. After a second trial yielded the same verdicts, Leibowitz again appealed, in 1935, arguing that the systematic exclusion of African Americans from jury duty was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. The US Supreme Court ruled, in an unprecedented decision, that African Americans are entitled to have a jury with black jurors in order to guarantee a trial by one’s peers. Ruby Bates (who had run off to New York City) recanted her testimony, admitting that Victoria Price had bullied her into fabricating rape charges. The jury, however, found all nine defendants guilty as charged, discounting Ruby Bates’ testimony as tainted by her “Northernization”. Judge James Horton, who had political aspirations to be governor, set aside the verdict and granted a new trial, despite death threats and the annihilation of any political future. With attorney Sam Leibowitz now relegated to an assistant counsel’s role, a jury—now with one black member—returned a guilty verdict.
Alabama abandoned its legal fight after the second Supreme Court decision, realizing that the cost to the state’s budget and reputation was too high. Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the remaining five ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences. One was shot in the head by a prison guard, suffering irrevocable brain damage. Two escaped, were charged with crimes, and sent back to prison. Clarence Norris, the oldest defendant and the only one sentenced to death, escaped parole and went into hiding in 1946. He was pardoned by Governor George Wallace thirty years later and wrote a book about his experiences. The last surviving defendant, he died in 1989.
The Scottsboro Boys led to the end of all-white juries in the South and served as a core inspiration for the civil rights movement. The case also has been retold in the award winning “Scottsboro Boys: The Musical” on Broadway and is currently at the ACT in San Francisco. The history and analysis of this case deserves to be in every history book of 20th Century US civics.