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The Scottsboro Trials: 1931-37

"legal Lynching … Victims Of 'capitalist Justice", "you Can't Mix Politics With Law"

Defendants: Olin Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Eugene Williams, Andy Wright, and Roy Wright
Crime Charged: Rape
Chief Defense Lawyers: Joseph Brodsky, George W. Chamlee, Samuel S. Leibowitz, Milo Moody, Stephen R. Roddy, and Clarence Watts
Chief Prosecutors: H. G. Bailey, Melvin Hutson, Thomas G. Knight, Jr., Thomas Lawson, and Wade Wright
Judges: Alfred E. Hawkins, James Edwin Horton, Jr., and William Washington Callahan
Places: Scottsboro, Alabama; Decatur, Alabama
Dates of Trials: April 6-9, 1931; March 27-April 9, 1933; November 20-December 6, 1933; January 20-24, 1936; July 12-24, 1937
Verdicts: All but Roy Wright: Guilty; Roy Wright: Mistrial
Sentences: Death by electrocution, later reduced

SIGNIFICANCE: No one knows how many cases like Scottsboro occurred in Southern states before this one—with its large number of defendants, their youth, their brief and almost cursory trials and severe sentences—demanded national attention. The trials, and their appeals, gave America lessons in the procedures of Southern courts, the opportunism of American communists, the prejudice in the South, and the hypocrisy among Southern whites.

On a March morning in 1931, seven bedraggled white youths appeared in a railroad station master's office in northern Alabama and announced that, while riding as hobos, they had been thrown off a freight train by a "bunch of Negroes" who picked a fight. The station master phoned ahead and, near Scottsboro, a deputy sheriff deputized every man who owned a gun. When the train stopped, the posse rounded up nine black boys and two white girls—the latter dressed in men's caps and overalls.

While the white girls chatted with townspeople, the deputy sheriff tied the blacks together and quizzed them. Five were from Georgia. At 20, Charlie Weems was the eldest. Clarence Norris was 19, Ozie Powell, 16. Olin Montgomery, 17, looked "sleepy-eyed," for he was blind in one eye and had only 10 percent vision in the other. Willie Roberson, 17, suffering from syphilis and gonorrhea, walked unsteadily with a cane. Four were from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Haywood Patterson and Andy Wright were 19. Eugene Williams was 13. And Wright's brother Roy was 12.

When the deputy sheriff had loaded his prisoners onto an open truck, one of the girls, Ruby Bates, from Huntsville, Alabama, told him that she and her friend Victoria Price had been raped by the nine blacks.

In Scottsboro, the sheriff sent the women off to be examined by two doctors. Meantime, word of the rape charge spread through Jackson County. By nightfall, a mob of several hundred, promising to lynch the prisoners, stood before the little jail. The sheriff, barricaded with 21 deputies, phoned the governor. But by the time 25 National Guardsmen arrived, the mob had cooled down and most people had drifted away.

As the trial began on April 6, 1931, 102 guardsmen held a crowd of several thousand at a distance of 100 feet from the courthouse.

Ready to appoint defense counsel, Judge Alfred E. Hawkins offered the job to any lawyer in the county who would take it. He accepted Chattanooga attorney Stephen R. Roddy, who admitted he didn't know Alabama law, when local attorney Milo Moody offered to help. Roddy, who had a jail record for drunkenness, was already inebriated at 9:00 A.M.

Circuit Solicitor H.G. Bailey tried Weems and Norris first. Victoria Price described how she and Ruby Bates had hopped freight trains to Chattanooga to look for jobs and, finding none, were returning when the black boys, after throwing the whites off the train, turned on them. She described how she was "beaten up" and "bruised up" by rape after rape, then "lost consciousness" and next found herself on her way to the jail in Scottsboro.

Dr. R.R. Bridges testified he saw no evidence of violence when he examined the girls. Victoria Price, he said, "was not lacerated at all. She was not bloody, neither was the other girl." A second doctor agreed that while both girls showed evidence of recent sexual intercourse, the semen found was "nonmotile," or inactive, whereas semen is normally viable for 12 to 48 hours.

By Thursday afternoon, all defendants except 12-year-old Roy Wright had been found guilty. Because of his age, the state had asked for life imprisonment for him, but the jury was deadlocked—seven jurors insisted on death. The judge declared a mistrial for Roy Wright and sentenced the eight others to electrocution.

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