March 25, 1931 – Nine African American teenagers are arrested in Alabama for allegedly gang-raping two white women. Known as the "Scottsboro Boys" (for the town in which they were tried), the teens were convicted and sentenced to death even though no evidence of rape existed. Despite two U.S. Supreme Court decisions overturning their sentences, seven of the nine ended up in jail.
Victoria Price was a 21-year-old, poverty-stricken woman from Huntsville, Alabama. She worked five or six days a month, for about $1.20 a day, in a textile mill. She turned to prostitution, and counted white and black men among her clients. She'd been married three times by the age of 21, and was currently dating a married man named Jack Tiller. Price often hoboed – riding freight trains for free from town to town, looking for work.
Ruby Bates was a 17-year old, also from Huntsville. Like Price, she worked in textile miles, but had turned to hoboing in order to find work.
About March 20, Price and Bates were in Huntsville when they met Lester Carter, a 21-year-old white drifter riding the rails. Tiller, Price, Bates, and Carter spent the night in a hobo camp in Chattanooga on March 23. That night, both women had sex with Carter and Tiller. The next day, the four headed to Chattanooga. They spent the night in a hobo camp, where they met 19-year-old Orville Gilley, a "proudly unemployed" hobo who fancied himself a poet. That night, the two women had sex with all three men.
About 10:20 AM on March 25, the group hopped aboard a Southern Railway freight train headed back to Huntsville. Everyone settled in a gondola car (an open-topped car used for hauling coal or rock). There were several white men and youths aboard the gondola car, as well as nine black teenagers. The nine teens were:
- Charlie Weems – Age 20, his mother had died when he was four. Six of his seven siblings died soon afterwards. His father then fell ill a few years later, and Weems had lived with an aunt in Georgia. He was on his way home to see his father.
- Clarence Norris – Age 19, he was the son of a former slave who went to work in the field at the age of seven. He had 10 siblings, and his mother died giving birth to the last of them. His father died when he was in his early teens, and he began hoboing to find work.
- Andy Wright – Age 19, he had been born in Chattanooga. He'd left home to find work and have fun.
- Haywood Patterson – Age 18, he was born in Georgia, but ran away from home at the age of 14 to find work. He'd spent the last four years hoboing. He'd spent some time in Chattanooga, where he'd befriended Eugene Williams, Andy Wright, and Roy Wright.
- Olen Montgomery – Age 17, he was born in Georgia and was the only one of the defendants who could read and write. He suffered from severe nearsightedness and cataracts which left him nearly blind. He was hoboing his way to Memphis, where he hoped to find work so that he could afford glasses.
- Willie Roberson – Age 16, he'd been abandoned by his father as an infant and his mother died when he was two. He'd been raised by his grandmother, but she died in 1930. He had an IQ of only 64, and his mental age was nine. He'd gotten infected with both syphilis and gonorrhea in 1930. His case was advanced, and his legs and feet were covered with sores which made it almost impossible for him to walk without a cane. He was going to Memphis to seek free medical care.
- Ozie Powell – Age 16, he'd been born in Georgia, and parents separated when he was a child. His mother worked for a white family in Atlanta. He left home at age 14 to find work, usually in lumber camps or sawmills.
- Eugene Williams – Age 13, he was from Chattanooga. He was friends with Roy Wright, and decided to leave home to find work and adventure with them.
- Roy Wright – Age 13, he was from Chattanooga and the younger brother of Andy Wright. Like his brother, he wanted work and fun.
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Shortly after leaving Chattanooga, the train passed through the Lookout Mountain Tunnel. As it did so, some of the white men verbally insulted the nine black youths. Haywood Patterson demanded an apology. When none was forthcoming, Weems, Norris, Andy Wright, Patterson, and Powell fought with the men. The fight lasted an hour. The freight train stopped in Stevenson, Alabama, at which point the black teenagers pushed the white men and youth off the train. Still aboard the gondola were Price, Bates, and Gilley. The bleeding white men told the local sheriff that they'd been assaulted by some black youths on the train. The sheriff telephone to Paint Rock, the next stop, and had the sheriff there arrest any black youth on the train.
The Paint Rock sheriff arrested the nine black youth. He was shocked to find Price and Bates, dressed in overalls and men's caps, also aboard the train. He became suspicious, as only prostitutes would hobo. Price now became concerned that she and Bates would be arrested under the Mann Act, a federal law which forbade interstate prostitution. As soon as the sheriff spoke to Price, she began accusing the black youth of raping her and Bates.
The nine black youth, Price, Bates, and Gilley were taken to the jail in Scottsboro (hence the name of the group). Dr. R.R. Bridges and Dr. Marvin Lynch examined both women. Neither was upset or traumatized, and Price even joked and chatted. Vaginal swabs revealed semen in both women, but the semen was dead – indicating that sex had occurred at least 12 to 24 hours earlier (not a few hours, as the women claimed). Moreover, neither woman's vagina showed any signs of forced entry, and neither woman had any scratches or bruises which would indicate rape.
In the Jim Crow South, black males accused of raping a white woman were lynched. Within a few hours, a lynch mob had formed outside the Paint Rock jail. The sheriff was worried and telephoned Governor Benjamin M. Miller. Miller mobilized the Alabama National Guard, which sent a unit to Scottsboro to take charge of the boys and move them to a safer jail in Gadsden, Alabama (the county seat).
None of the defendants were allowed to speak to an attorney.
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Judge A.E. Hawkins determined that the defendants had to be tried immediately, before a new mob could form. He ordered the nine to stand trial the FOLLOWING DAY. No one was willing to defend the accused except for 69-year-old Milo Moody, who had not tried a case in decades. Judge Hawkins appointed Stephen Roddy, a local real estate lawyer, to assist Moody. Both men complained that they had no time to prepare a case, but Hawkins dismissed their objections. Roddy asked for a change of venue, due to the hostile atmosphere, and Hawkins dismissed the motion. The judge, realizing that neither Price nor Bates had an attorney, appointed Roddy to also represent them – a highly irregular order.
20-year-old Charlie Weems and 19-year-old Clarence Norris were tried together. Price gave a lurid description of the rape, claimed that one of the defendants had a gun, and cracked jokes with the prosecutor that had the courtroom laughing. Dr. Bridges testified that he found no evidence of rape. Ruby Bates failed to allege rape until the defense brought it up, but did tell a wild story about a gunfight, a pistol-whipping, and a knife held to her throat. Weems testified that Patterson had a pistol, and Norris in turn accused the other eight of raping the women. Moody and Roddy gave up and made no closing argument. The trial had taken less than six hours.
While the first jury was deliberating, Haywood and Patterson were tried. Price once more took the stand, although this time she was less lurid. Bates now showed a marked lack of memory on the stand, and could not say how many men raped Price. As her testimony ended, the first jury returned its verdict: Guilty, and death by electrocution. The courtroom erupted in cheers. Moody and Roddy moved for a mistrial, arguing the excitement had biased the second jury. Judge Hawkins dismissed the motion. Dr. Bridges once more testified that there was no sign of rape. Patterson testified that he'd seen five of the others rape the women, but then recanted his testimony. Young Roy Wright, brought in as a defense witness, claimed that nine other black youths raped the women, and one of them had a pistol. The case went to the jury after just six hours.
Montgomery, Roberson, Powell, and Williams were tried together. Price was back on her game for this trial, giving outrageous testimony about waving knives, men holding her legs open, and being forced to watch Ruby Bates be raped. She even claimed that one of the defendants had held a knife to Gilley's throat, to prevent him from interfering. Twenty-five minutes into the trial, the second jury returned its verdict: Guilty, and death by electrocution. Dr. Bridges testified again, but was forced to admit on the stand that Willie Roberson might have been able to have intercourse despite his illness. All four defendants testified they had not seen the girls. The case went to the jury after eight hours.
Roy Wright, the youngest of the nine, was tried separately, as he was too young for the death penalty. Price and Bates testified briefly, and his case went to the jury after a trial lasting less than an hour.
At 9 AM the next morning, Montgomery, Roberson, Powell, and Williams were found guilty, and sentence to die by electrocution. Roy Wright's jury could not agree on sentencing, and a mistrial was declared.
Judge Hawkins set the executions for July 10, 1931, the earliest date allowed under Alabama law.
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The Communist Party USA and its legal arm, International Labor Defense (ILD), became interested in the case. So did the NAACP, but the Scottsboro Boys asked the ILD to take charge. On April 18, the ILD hired attorneys George W. Chamlee and Joseph Brodsky to handle the defense.
Chamlee and Brodsky paid for private investigators to look into the veracity of Price and Bates, and soon discovered that both had been prostitutes. Chamlee asked for a new trial, based on evidence the two had lied about their previous sexual proclivities. Hawkins denied the motion. Brodsky asked for a new trial based on the uproar the second jury had overhead (which the U.S. Supreme Court had held was evidence of mistrial). Again, Hawkins denied the motion.
Chamlee and Brodsky filed an appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court, which issued an indefinite stay just 72 hours before the eight boys were to die. The defense team pointed to the lack of time to prepare a case, the swiftness of the trial, the intimidating mobs outside the courthouse, and the lack of African Americans on the jury. On March 24, 1932, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against the Scottsboro Boys. However, it did overturn Eugene Williams' conviction, as he was too young to be given a death sentence. It ordered a new trial for him.
Chamlee and Brodsky appeared to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral argument on October 10, 1932. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court in Powell v. Alabama reversed all eight convictions. The due process clause of the Constitution guaranteed the right to an effective counsel at a criminal trial. The constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial did not, the Court said, constitute a rush to judgment. The cases were remanded to Judge Hawkins for retrial.
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Because the Scottsboro Boys had generated such intense local interest, Judge Hawkins now granted the request for a change of venue. The case was transferred to Judge James E. Horton in the small town of Decatur, Alabama. The ILD now hired nationally renowned criminal defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz to handle the cases. By now, the case had attracted national attention, and more than 100 reporters clogged the courtroom.
Leibowitz began by objecting to the exclusion of African Americans from the jury. He called numerous witnesses to testify that there were educated, professional African Americans in town who were well-qualified to serve on a jury. Horton denied the motion.
Haywood Patterson was tried first. Once more, Victoria Price took the stand, although she was quiet and demure this time. She answered Leibowitz sarcastically and evasively, and claimed a remarkable lack of memory. Leibowitz could not shake her testimony, but he was far more successful with other witnesses. He got Dr. Bridges to admit to a complete lack of evidence for rape, and successfully caught a number of eyewitnesses lying about what they had seen happening on the train as it rolled into Paint Rock. He also called witnesses who testified that Price and Bates had engaged in sex in the hobo jungle in Chattanooga the night before. Lester Carter testified he'd had sex with Price, as did Jack Tiller. Tiller even testified that he'd overhead Price badger Gilley into backing her up on the rape claim.
Ruby Bates, however, had disappeared a few weeks earlier. Now, Leibowitz surprised the court by bringing her in. Bates had fled to New York City, where the ILD had tracked her down. Bates testified that no rape had ever occurred, that she and Price had concocted the story to avoid a Mann Act arrest, and that she'd had sex with Lester Carter. The prosecution, however, got Bates to admit that the ILD had paid for new clothes for her, which impugned her testimony before the jury. The prosecution also launch a series of anti-semitic attacks, referring to Lester Carter as "Mr. Caterinsky" and calling him "the prettiest Jew" in the world. He accused Leibowitz of buying witness testimony with "Jew money from New York".
The jury deliberated for about 11 hours before returning a verdict: Guilty, and death by electrocution. Leibowitz moved for a new trial, and amazingly Judge Horton set aside the verdict. Horton also ruled that the remaining defendants could not get a fair trial in Alabama.
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The outraged prosecution immediately charged all of the boys with rape, and asked for a new judge. Judge Horton stepped aside, and Judge William Washington Callahan, an extreme racist, was put in charge of the case.
The retrials began in November 1933. Judge Callahan demanded that each trial take no more than three days, and declined to give the defense police protection, and denied a motion for a change of venue. Once more, Leibowitz focused on the lack of African Americans on the jury. He caught county officials perjuring themselves and falsifying documents to try to "prove" that blacks were in the jury pool. Judge Callahan overruled Leibowitz's objections.
Haywood Patterson's trial began on November 27, 1933. Callahan seated jurors even though they exhibited racial bias against the defendants, excluded defense evidence that Judge Horton had admitted, routinely upheld even the most ephemeral prosecution objections, and never once upheld a defense objection. Once more, Victoria Price made lurid accusations about gun battles -- this time featuring a dozen armed black men. She claimed a knife was held to her throat, and that the black boys had threatened to sell her into white slavery. Leibowitz identified numerous contradictions in her testimony, but Judge Callahan called his objections immaterial, useless, and a waste of time. The prosecution, having found Orville Gilley, put him on the stand as well. Gilley claimed he had seen everything, and even said he had persuaded the black boys to cease raping Price so that she would not die. Gilley claimed no sex had occurred the night before with Price and Bates, and Callahan refused to allow Leibowitz to impugn the witness. Callahan also refused to allow Lester Carter to testify, ruling it was "immaterial". Callahan permitted the prosecution to read transcripts from the first trial, including Patterson's claim that the other boys had raped Price and Bates. Leibowitz objected, saying the U.S. Supreme Court had held that testimony illegal. Callahan overruled him. The case went to the jury on November 30. Judge Callahan told the jury that no white woman would ever willingly consent to sex with a black man. Any sex, therefore, was rape. Callahan than gave the jury a single form – for conviction. (The worried prosecution, fearing a mistrial, begged him to give the jury a form declaring innocence. Callahan agreed.)
Twenty-six hours later, Patterson was found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Clarence Norris's trial began on November 30, 1933, and ended December 4. After 14 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced Norris to die by electrocution.
At this point, Leibowitz filed appeals with the Alabama Supreme Court. The trials of the remaining eight defendants were suspended while the appeal went forward. The Alabama Supreme Court denied the appeals. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. On April 1, 1935, the Supreme Court held in Norris v. Alabama that exclusion of African Americans from a jury based solely on their race was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The cases were remanded back to Judge Callahan.
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Recognizing that Southern juries saw him as an outsider Jew, Leibowitz stepped aside from the case in favor of local attorney Charles Watts.
This time, a single African American was seated in the jury: Creed Conyers, the first black man to sit on a jury in Alabama since Reconstruction.
But with Judge Callahan in control of the trial once more, the outcomes were foreordained. Haywood Patterson was tried on January 20, and convicted on January 23. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 75 years in prison -- the first time in Alabama history that a black man had been convicted of rape and not sentenced to death.
Ozie Powell assaulted a prison guard on January 24, 1936, after the guard threatened his life. Powell was shot in the head and suffered permanent brain damage. He pleaded guilty to assaulting the deputy, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The state dropped the rape charges against him as part of his plea bargain.
Clarence Norris was convicted of rape on July 15, 1937, and sentenced to death. Andrew Wright was convicted of rape on July 22, 1937, and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Charlie Weems was convicted of rape on July 24, 1937, and sentenced to 105 years in prison.
On July 24, 1937, the state of Alabama dropped all charges against Willie Roberson, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright.
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Alabama Governor Bibb Graves planned to pardon the imprisoned Scottsboro Boys in 1938. Angered by their refusal to admit guilt, he declined to do so. He did, however, commute Clarence Norris' sentence to life I prison.
Charlie Weems served his sentence in some of Alabama's worst prisons. Shortly after his incarceration, prison guards tear-gassed his cell because he was reading socialist literature. It caused him permanent eye-damage. He came down with tuberculosis in 1937, and in March 1938 was stabbed by another prisoner in a case of mistaken identity while in the prison infirmary. He was paroled in 1943, and found a job in a laundry in Atlanta, Georgia. The place and date of his death are not known.
Clarence Norris was paroled in 1944, and fled Alabama. Convinced to return so that Patterson, Powell, and Wright would receive parole, the state reneged on its promise and threw him in jail again. He was paroled again in 1946. He assumed his brother's identity and fled to New York state. He married three times, and had children. He was arrested for gun possession, gambling, and stabbing a girlfriend. Still in fear of extradition, he picked up the phone and called Alabama Governor George Wallace to see if he could receive a pardon. Alabama ordered him to turn himself in first. The NAACP began a national campaign to help him, and the Alabama Parole Board acted independently to void his parole delinquency. Governor Wallace approves a pardon on October 25, 1976. He went on a speaking tour for the NAACP afterward, and published an autobiography, The Last of the Scottsboro Boys, in 1979. Norris was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in the 1980s, and died on January 23, 1989. By every news account, he was the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys.
Andy Wright was paroled in November 1943. He settled near Montgomery, Alabama, but fled the state. He was persuaded to return to Alabama so that Patterson and Powell might win parole, but the state reneged on its promise. He was incarcerated and paroled again in May 1950. He got a job in Albany, New York, as a hospital janitor. Accused of raping a 13-year-old girl in 1951, he spent eight months in jail before being acquitted. (The only reason the mother's accusations were believed was because he was a Scottsboro Boy.) He moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and then to New York City before returning to Albany again. He stabbed his wife during a fight; when she didn't press charges, he settled in Connecticut. He died there, but the date of his death is not known.
Haywood Patterson escaped from prison in 1948. He fled to Michigan, and Michigan's governor refused to extradite him. He published a book, The Scottsboro Boy, in 1950. He was convicted of assault and manslaughter in 1951 for stabbing a man in a bar fight and sentenced to prison, where he died of cancer on August 24, 1952.
Olen Montgomery was rushed out of the state of Alabama by defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz immediately after rape charges against him were dropped. He ended up in New York, where he entered vaudeville. This proved to be a failure, and he quit entertaining in order to go on a national speaking tour to raise money for the remaining five incarcerated Scottsboro Boys. After a brief residency in Georgia, he moved to Detroit, Michigan. A career as a blues musician fizzled, and he spent his final years days in New York City or Atlanta, drinking heavily and receiving occasional financial help from the NAACP. The place and date of his death are not known.
Like Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson was rushed out of Alabama and to New York City. He joined Montgomery in vaudeville, but quit when this venture failed. His asthma, which he'd suffered from as a youth, worsened throughout his life. He died of an asthma attack, although the place and date of his death are not known.
Ozie Powell was paroled in 1946. He moved to Georgia, and lived quietly. The place and date of his death are not known.
Like Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams was rushed out of Alabama and to New York City. He joined Montgomery in vaudeville, but quit when this venture failed. He moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he had relatives. They helped him settle into a quiet life. The place and date of his death are not known.
Like Olen Montgomery, Roy Wright was rushed out of Alabama and to New York City. He joined Montgomery in vaudeville, but quit when this venture failed. He then went on a national lecture tour to raise money for the remaining incarcerated Scottsboro Boys. He joined the U.S. Army, and then later the U.S. Merchant Marine. Returning from a tour at sea in 1959, he found his wife in the home of another man. He shot and killed her, returned home, and committed suicide.
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Thomas E. Knight, Jr., the Alabama Attorney General who had prosecuted the Scottsboro Boys, as elected Lieutenant Governor of Alabama in 1934. He died in office of a heart attack on May 17, 1937.
Ruby Bates was converted to evangelical Christianity by Rev. Henry Emerson Fosdick during her flight to New York City. She was a speaker for a time with the ILD, then got a job in a New York state textile factory. In 1938, she returned to Huntsville. Harassed and attacked in her home town, she moved to Washington state in 1940, married Elmer Schut, and began calling herself Lucille. She died on October 27, 1976, two weeks after her husband died and two days after the state of Alabama pardoned Clarence Norris.
Victoria Price worked in a Huntsville cotton mill until 1938, then moved to Flintville, Tennessee, where she faded into obscurity by taking the name Katherine Queen Victory Street. She married twice more (the last time to a carpenter), and died in 1983 in Lincoln County, Tennessee.
In 1976, NBC aired a made-for-television movie titled Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys. The movie claimed that Bates and Price were "proven" prostitutes during the various trials. Both Bates and Price sued for libel, slander, and invasion of privacy. Bates died before her case could be heard. Price's case was dismissed, but she appealed and won a new trial. A court found NBC liable, and the network appealed. Price's victory was overturned by an appellate court. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear her case. Price settled out of court in 1977 and bought a house with the money.
In May 2013, the Alabama legislature enacted bills which gave the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles the authority to issue posthumous pardons to Weems, Andy Wright, and Patterson. The parole board did so on November 21, 2013. The final three Scottsboro Boys finally were pardoned.