It all started March 24, 1931, when nine Chattanooga, Tenn. boys age 13 to 21 were hauled off a freight train in the northern Alabama town of Paint Rock, arrested and charged with raping two white women - Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.
The first trial of the Scottsboro boys was an international scandal. The AFRO sent its late Managing Editor, William N. Jones who reported in the issue of April 18, 1931, that 10,000 white mountaineers and villagers came to town the day of the trial.
The defendants were assigned a local lawyer who participated as defense counsel with no preparation. The young men were tried in three groups and eight were convicted and sentenced to death in one day.
Most historians today agree that the Scottsboro boys had committed no crime other than being black. Few believed or now believe that the youths were guilty. One of the girls involved was an admitted prostitute and the other's claim to virtue was questionable.

The Scottsboro Case 1932-1935

 In Powell vs Alabama, 287 U. S. 45 (1932) the Supreme Court overturned the convictions on the ground that the constitutional right to counsel had been denied.
In Norris v. Alabama 254 U. S. 587 (1935), the Supreme Court set aside the convictions because blacks had been systematically excluded from jury service.
There was no real factual question as to the adequacy of counsel at the mass trial in Scottsboro. Young, uneducated, the nine required the most competent of attorneys. Instead, there had been mere token legal representation.
The Supreme Court would not permit the convictions to stand. The Court held that, at least in capital cases, where the accused was unable to employ counsel and was not sufficiently knowledgeable to present his own defense, it was the duty of the trial court to assign appropriate counsel. Failure to do so was a violation of due process of law.
This was the first case in which the Supreme Court held that the right "to have the assistance of counsel," guaranteed against state governments by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Two of the seven once again underwent trial in Scottsboro. They were convicted and given the death sentence. Again there was a legal issue for Supreme Court review. In 1935, the high court once more set aside the convictions. As before, there was no real dispute over the facts although no Alabama statute discriminated against blacks as jurors, state practices had systematically and arbitrarily excluded blacks from the jury lists. This, ruled the Court, was a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In the subsequent history of the Scottsboro cases, charges were dropped against five of the nine and the other four were retired and convicted in 1936 and 1937. Three were later paroled and the fourth who escaped, subsequently died in a Michigan penitentiary.
In the period from 1931 to 1935, socialities, poor people, liberals raised money for the Scottsboro defense. At one time the NAACP and the International Labor Defense Movement fought over who would represent the boys. In the end, the International Labor Defense Movement fought the fight to the end, and rallies to raise funds were staged in every major city with Ruby Bates telling her true story in the labor press and on every street corner.
AFRO files show a 1947 letter from Haywood Patterson the last of the boys to remain in prison and forgotten by everyone. He wrote, "In recent years the International Labor Defense organization and no particular interest in my welfare."
Haywood finally escaped from prison in Alabama and the Governor of Michigan refused to extradite him. While in Detroit he was convicted of a fatal knifing and died of cancer in the State Prison of Michigan in 1952.


Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: November 6, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse