Scottsboro Boys Pardoned – only 80 years later
So the Scottsboro Boys were pardoned by the State of Alabama. According to an article in the New York Times on November 21, 2013, the “Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously during a hearing in Montgomery to issue the pardons to Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright, all of whom were repeatedly convicted of the rapes in the 1930s.” This after the Alabama Legislature passed a bill in April to grant posthumous pardons. It awaited a signature by the Governor, which took place following a review by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. It only took 80 plus years to correct what is perhaps the most foul and famous of all American injustices. Of course, there were innumerable less famous injustices, lynchings, murders, unjust convictions, harassment and indignities visited upon former slaves and their descendants in the years following the Civil War and on well into the 20th Century. But the Scottsboro Boys case is worth revisiting some of the details due to its extraordinary venality and viciousness.
The case arose when a fight broke out between young men riding on a train going from Chattanooga through Northern Alabama on March 25, 1931, in the middle of Jim Crow. Seven white boys and two white girls were involved, as were a number of young African-American men. All but one of the white boys was kicked off the train. Several of the white boys reported to a local sheriff that they had been attacked by a group of black boys (only one of the 9 “boys” was an adult). The Sheriff stopped the train in Paint Rock, Alabama. The two white girls accused nine of the black boys of raping them. A lynch mob gathered at the jail in Scottsboro, Alabama. The militia was called to protect the jail. The militia was then present throughout the proceedings.
From there, the criminal justice system kicked in. What should have protected the young men instead allowed for the Alabama criminal justice system to pretend that due process was occurring. The nine defendants were not allowed to consult with a lawyer after arrest. At the time, the Constitution of the State of Alabama required the court in a capital case to appoint a lawyer. The trial judge ordered the Alabama bar to represent them rather than appointing a specific lawyer. By the morning of trial, no lawyer had been appointed. A lawyer named Mike Moody volunteered that morning as a favor to the judge. Mike was a 69 year old lawyer who had not defended a case in decades. The judge persuaded Chattanooga real estate lawyer Stephen Roddy to assist, also on the morning of trial. The trial occurred six days after the incident. Let me repeat: the trial began only six days after the arrest.
Weems and Norris were tried first. In that trial, the defense made no closing argument. The verdict was returned sentencing the two to death. The crowd in and out of the courtroom cheered. A band outside played “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s all here,” and “There’ll be a Hot Town in the Old Town Tonight.” While the first jury was deliberating, Haywood Patterson was tried, represented by the same lawyers. A death sentence was returned against Patterson. Immediately, the trial of Powell, Roberson, Williams, Montgomery, and Wright began. Again there was no argument from the defense. On April 9, 1931, all five young men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Roy Wright, age 13, was tried immediately. The jury hung on penalty, (7 wanted death), and a mistrial was declared. Four capital trials within 15 days of arrest!
Eight of the nine were sentenced to death on April 9, 1931. Their execution was set for July 10, 1931. They were on death row within 72 hours of execution when a stay was entered. The stay would not have occurred had not the Communist Party intervened. Their investigation revealed that the two white girls, Price and Bates, were prostitutes from Chattanooga. Not persuaded, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the death sentences. The US Supreme Court reversed in Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932). In a decision by Justice Sutherland, the Court held that due process was violated when the defendants were not given time to secure counsel, and by the failure of the trial court to appoint counsel. Justices Butler and McReynolds dissented.
Patterson was retried in Decatur, Alabama. This time he had an attorney hired by the Communist Party. This time one of the “victims”, Bates, said they had not been raped, and that Price had told her to make up a story. Closing argument by the prosecutor was anti-Semitic (the attorney for the defense was a Jewish person from New York City). Patterson was again convicted and sentenced to die, but the trial judge granted him a new trial. That judge was then disqualified because of his rulings. A racist judge was then appointed to try Patterson. The judge eventually instructed the jury that no white woman would voluntarily have sex with a black man. Patterson was given a 3rd death sentence. The US Supreme Court again reversed in Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587 (1935) and Patterson v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 600 (1935), because blacks had been excluded from the jury.
Those are only some of the outrageous facts from this blight on American jurisprudence. Eventually all of the Scottsboro Boys served significant time in prison, but none were executed. No doubt their lives were ruined. Perhaps the only slight good to come of this is that many public defenders I have talked to went to law school because they saw Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is said that the case of the Scottsboro Boys motivated Harper Lee to write her book.
And now they are pardoned.
80 years later.