Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March 25

On this date in 1931, a fight took place on a Memphis-bound train between a group of whites and a group of blacks, all of whom had hopped the train while traveling the region in search of work. In the course of the skirmish, several of the white youth were tossed from the slow-moving cars. When the train arrived at its next stop in Paint Rock, Alabama, nine black teenagers were arrested by a mob of armed whites. From there, they were removed to a jail in nearby Scottsboro, where they were charged with assaulting a group of white youth on a train earlier that afternoon. Most importantly, the young men were accused of raping two white women -- charges that would have resulted in their lynching that very night if the governor of Alabama had not intervened to prevent it.

Over the next five years, the defendants would endure multiple trials and rounds of appeals that brought the case to the Supreme Court and to the attention of the entire nation. Although the accusations against the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” were completely unsupported by physical or eyewitness testimony, eight of the nine received quick convictions and capital sentences in April 1931. As Hollace Ransdall noted in an unpublished report on the case, the white community of Scottsboro was absolutely convinced of the guilt of the accused.
They all wanted the Negroes killed as quickly as possible in a way that would not bring disrepute upon the town. They therefore preferred a sentence of death by a judge, to a sentence of death by a mob, but they desired the same result, and were impatient with anything that slowed up the conviction and death sentence which they all knew was coming regardless of any testimony.

They said that all negroes were brutes and had to be held down by stern repressive measures or the number of rapes on white women would be larger than it is. Their point seemed to be that it was only by ruthless oppression of the Negro that any white woman was able to escape raping at Negro hands. Starting with this notion, it followed that they could not conceive that two white girls found riding with a crowd of Negroes could possibly have escaped raping. A Negro will always, in their opinion, rape a white woman if he gets the chance. These nine Negroes were riding alone with two white girls on a freight car. Therefore, there was no question that they raped them, or wanted to rape them, or were present while the other Negroes raped them - all of which amounts to very much the same thing in southern eyes - and calls for the immediate death of the Negroes regardless of these shades of difference. As one southerner in Scottsboro put it, "We white people just couldn't afford to let these Niggers get off because of the effect it would have on other Niggers."
On appeal, the US Supreme Court overturned the initial verdicts, ruling that the young men had been offered incompetent counsel. (The original lawyers consisted of a staggering alcoholic and an elderly lawyer who had not tried a case in years.) Alabama quickly retried one of the defendants, Haywood Patterson, and though one of his accusers -- a young woman named Daisy Bates -- had recanted her testimony, the jury again found Patterson guilty and sentenced him to die.

By now, however, the judge in the Patterson trial harbored serious doubts about the guilt of the defendants. In a decision that ultimately ruined his career, Judge James Horton chose to set aside the verdict and ordered a third trial for Patterson. A more compliant judge presided over Patterson’s third trial, which ended in precisely the same manner as his first two. For the second time, the United States Supreme Court vacated Patterson’s conviction -- as well as that of his fellow defendant Clarence Norris -- on the grounds that the court’s deliberate exclusion of blacks from the jury pool had violated the constitutional rights of the accused.

By 1936 -- five years after the initial incident -- the fourth round of trials began. Patterson and Norris were again convicted, along with Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell and Charlie Weems. All received sentences of 20 to 99 years for crimes they did not commit. On July 24, 1937, the state dropped charges against Roy Wright, Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery and Willie Roberson, all of whom had been in prison for nearly five years after their initial guilty verdicts had been overturned. Between 1943 and 1950, Alabama paroled four of the five convicted Scottsboro defendants; Haywood Patterson escaped from prison in July 1948 and fled to Michigan, which refused to extradite him after his capture two years later.

Although the case is universally regarded as one of the worst episodes in American legal history, Alabama never offered restitution to the young men who spent so many unnecessary years fearing for their lives in state custody.