Learning Pack Preview: The Scottsboro Case

It wasn’t Southern hospitality that prompted a local posse to greet the Chattanooga to Memphis freight train as it pulled into Paint Rock, Alabama, on March 25, 1931 — or maybe it was. On board, among a crowd of riders who had hopped the train searching for work, were nine young black men, some of them still boys. Little did they know that their lives, which had already been made miserable by the twin demons of racism and the Great Depression, were suddenly about to get a whole lot worse.

The mob had arrived after word spread of a brawl on the train between groups of black and white passengers. The black youths, only some of whom had actually been involved in the fight, were taken into custody. But if their situation wasn’t sticky enough, it quickly worsened when two white female passengers named Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, for reasons of their own, told the mob that they had been raped by the prisoners. So began the most excruciating legal ordeal in the nation’s history, one that put the defendants through a near lynching, several trials, convictions and reversals, stints on death row, physical torture and finally freedom. But it wasn’t just that innocent lives were ruined — and they were. The twenty years that it took for the Scottsboro case to be wrung from the judicial system proved to be a stain on America’s reputation around the world.

Less than two weeks after their arrests, the nine defendants — who ranged in age from 12 to 18 — were jointly put on trial. The country’s leading civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, refused to get involved. That placed their lives in the hands of two local attorneys who were notable only for their incompetence. It was no surprise then that the trials lasted a single day and the jury deliberated all of an hour and a half before sentencing all nine to death. After it returned its first verdicts, a brass band outside the courtroom celebrated with rousing renditions of "Dixie" and "The Star Spangled Banner."

It was at that point, with the date of execution set and little hope for an appeal, that the Communist Party stepped in. Through its legal arm, the International Labor Defense, the Party brought in Samuel Leibowitz, one of the country’s premiere defense attorneys, to save the lives of the Scottsboro boys, as they were called then. But The Party also kept its eye on the larger issues involved. With the whole world seemingly following the Scottsboro case, the modern civil rights movement had begun.

In this pack:

The first report of the trial and death sentence (April 29, 1931).

Eight Who Must Not Die
Dorothy Van Doren | A detailed account of the allegations and the horrifying circumstances surrounding the initial charges against the defendants, their brief trials and their current status: on death row, facing execution in July (June 3, 1931).

Now that the Alabama Supreme Court has rejected an appeal, the case heads to the US Supreme Court (April 6, 1932).

There is an initial plea for a rehearing before the US Supreme Court (June 15, 1932).

John Dos Passos pleads for help on behalf of the defendants (August 24, 1932).

The world’s eyes will be on the US Supreme Court when it rules on whether to set aside the guilty verdicts (October 12, 1932).

The Supreme Court rules the defendants did not receive a fair trial and sends the case back to Alabama (November 16, 1932).

Editorial, Lying in State
The Nation and civil liberties attorney Morris L. Ernst debate the merits of the Supreme Court ruling (December 7, 1932).

The South Speaks
John Henry Hammond, Jr. | The author reports from the trial in Decatur, Alabama, where, despite the excellent work of defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, Scottsboro defendant Haywood Patterson is once again condemned to death (April 6, 1933).

In a remarkably courageous decision, Judge Horton sets aside Haywood Patterson’s guilty verdict ( July 5, 1933).

During the retrial of the Scottsboro defendants, defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz demonstrates that Alabama officials have tampered with the jury rules to make it appear as if blacks had been eligible to serve (December 6, 1933).

Haywood Patterson is convicted and sentenced to death again (December 13, 1933).

Due Process of Law in Alabama
John Henry Hammond, Jr| A new judge who openly favored the prosecution has ensured that despite evidence to the contrary, the latest retrial ends in a conviction (December 20, 1933).

Is This the Voice of the South?
A letter castigates The Nation, for its trial coverage, prompting several readers to debate the issue of the South and civil rights (December 27, 1933).

An update on the case, on the third anniversary of the arrests (March 28, 1934).

New applications for stays of execution have been filed (November 28, 1934).

In what may prove to be a historic decision, the US Supreme Court rules that the State of Alabama denied the defendants a fair trial when blacks were barred from the jury rolls (April 10, 1935).

A grand jury has reindicted the defendants (November 27, 1935).

Following yet another trial and conviction, one of the Scottsboro defendants attacks the sheriff with a knife after he was assaulted by the officer (February 5, 1936).

The Scottsboro Puppet Show
Carleton Beals| In a report from Decatur, which includes comments from local residents, the author finds more of the same behavior from the prosecutor and the judge at the latest trial (February 5, 1936).

Scottsboro Interview
A fascinating bedside interview with Ozie Powell, who was shot and wounded by the Decatur sheriff and his guards, whose naked racism are revealed in their words (February 12, 1936).

Is Alabama tired of the case? Could a resolution be in the offing (June 19, 1937)?

In a surprise deal, four of the defendants are released, while the others are given long prison sentences (July 31, 1937).

Plea From a Scottsboro Boy
One of the defendants, Andy Wright, states his case in a letter to The Nation (August 7, 1937).

Behind the Scenes at Scottsboro
Morris Shapiro| The story behind the controversial deal between the prosection and defense (August 14, 1937).

The state may not be following through on its side of the deal (November 26, 1938).

Alabama Governor Bibb Graves says no to releasing the other defendants (January 7, 1939).

Any Black Will Do
The last of the Scottsboro defendants is pardoned by Alabama Governor George Wallace (December 18, 1976).