Quantcast

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Pardoning the Scottsboro Boys, Eighty Years Too Late | The Nation

  •  
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Pardoning the Scottsboro Boys, Eighty Years Too Late

The Scottsboro boys dancing and singing in an Alabama prison in 1937. (AP Photo)

The Scottsboro boys dancing and singing in an Alabama prison in 1937. (AP Photo)

Eighty-two years after being pulled off a Memphis-bound freight train, accused of raping two white women, threatened with lynching and subjected to years of blatant miscarriages of justice, the three Scottsboro Boys who had not yet been acquitted or pardoned were cleared by the state of Alabama on November 21. “Today is a reminder that it is never too late to right a wrong,” said State Senator Arthur Orr, who sponsored a bill to create a legal framework for the pardon. But however important as a symbolic gesture, the overdue action only underscored the fact that justice delayed is by definition justice denied: Clarence Norris, the last of the Scottsboro Boys, died in 1989.

Edited and published at the time by NAACP co-founder Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation immediately recognized Scottsboro as a vital front in the battle for civil rights and dispatched associate editor Dorothy Van Doren to Alabama to report on the case. Eight of the nine boys arrested had been charged in a snap trial lasting less than two weeks and were scheduled to hang in June 1931, but that date was postponed as a motion for a new trial was granted. They would remain in legal limbo, enduring numerous retrials and new convictions at the hands of all-white juries—even after one of the accusers admitted her allegation was a lie—for years.

In “Eight Who Must Not Die” (June 3, 1931), Van Doren wrote that precisely what made the accused such ripe targets for a racist and bloodthirsty Alabama judicial system was precisely what made their exoneration—if, as seemed clear to Van Doren and most observers, they were innocent—all the more necessary. In words sure to make twenty-first-century progressives uncomfortable, she wrote of the defendants:

None of them can read or write. All have unsavory reputations. They have been accused of various petty crimes—gambling, thieving, more or less harmful mischief in general. They are not noble characters; it is a safe guess that not one of them will ever amount to much. They are the products of ignorance, of the most wretched and extreme poverty, of dirt, disorder, and race oppression. Yet there is no reason in the world why they should not have every legal right accorded to the finest and most cultivated person in the land. They are poor and ignorant and irresponsible. All the more should the state protect them, all the more should every device of the courts and every safeguard of the law be invoked to the end that justice be served.

Two years later, as the proceedings were moved from Scottsboro to Decatur—“from all reports just a larger Scottsboro”—The Nation wrote in an editorial: “The Scottsboro boys are now more than ever in mortal danger. It is likely that only the pressure of public opinion upon the State of Alabama can save their lives. We hope that that pressure will be increasingly applied, by letter, by telegram, and by widespread publicity.”

In 1936, the great journalist Carleton Beals—who otherwise mostly wrote for The Nation on South and Central American politics—traveled to Alabama to interview Ozie Powell, the Scottsboro defendant who told a judge he had only three months of schooling and who, earlier that year, had been shot in the head by a police officer after pulling out a knife. Beals wrote in his article not only about the accused, but also about their accusers—the Alabaman whites looking for scapegoats:

As one rides through the countryside and sees the shacks in which they live, the boards warped and rotting, the windows broken and stuffed with rags, as one looks at the stony hillsides and the pine trees standing in swampy pools, one realizes that many of these people in America in the twentieth century live worse than most peasants in the Balkans and certainly have fewer cultural attainments. They fear the Negroes. It is an economic fear. It is a physical fear. It is a cultural fear. It is a blind fear.

In 1937, four of the Scottsboro Boys were acquitted of all charges, while the remaining four—Haywood Patterson, Andrew Wright, Charlie Weems and Clarence Norris—were convicted of rape and sentenced to seventy-five years, ninety-nine years, 105 years and death (later commuted to life), respectively. The peculiar and uneven conclusion to the case perplexed outside observers and prompted Morris Shapiro, secretary of the Scottsboro Defense Committee, to write in The Nation: “Alabama justice has yielded to expediency in the Scottsboro case. No other explanation is possible for the farcical finale which left the state in the anomalous position of providing only 50 per cent protection for the ‘flower of Southern womanhood.’”

All of the defendants were out of prison by 1950. Norris had jumped parole and wasn’t found until 1976, in Brooklyn; George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, pardoned him. Many of the others had found life extraordinarily difficult after the hardships they endured: Patterson died in prison after being convicted of manslaughter; Wright, living in Albany, New York, was again falsely accused of rape and later stabbed his wife; his little brother, Roy, just 13 at the time of his arrest, shot his wife and then himself in 1959.

As early as June 1931, Dorothy Van Doren had predicted that even if exonerated the Scottsboro Boys would not have easy lives. This was not so much because of the trauma of their recent ordeal, she wrote, as because of the overwhelmingly hostile and racist world into which they had been born. It was worthwhile, Van Doren wrote,

to consider for a moment to what sort of world they will get out, if they get out. Earnest persons who want to help somewhere and do not quite know how might ponder this point. They will reenter a world of poverty, ignorance, and race repression. Their chances of being in it a credit either to themselves or to their country are not large. Their chances even of living out their lives peaceably and dying in their beds are not large. They are the children of violence, and it is altogether likely that violence will overtake them in the end.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.