The state of Alabama may be a step closer to exonerating all of the Scottsboro Boys – nine Black youths falsely accused of raping two white women 80 years ago in a case that called the nation’s attention to the deadly racial injustice of the Jim Crow South.
The Scottsboro Boys, nine Black youngsters ages 13-19, were pulled off a train into court in 1931 after two young white women falsely accused them of rape; one later recanted. The sheriff protected them from being lynched, but all were tried in quick trials before all-white juries and all but the youngest had been sentenced to death only two weeks after being arrested. When they won retrials the following year, the Communist Party hired famed defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, shown here with his clients. Though he wasn’t able to free them all, he won the Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial discrimination in jury selection.
The plight of the Scottsboro Boys began on March 25, 1931, when a sheriff’s posse stopped a train in Paint Rock, Ala. Nine Black youths were arrested and taken to the county seat of Scottsboro, where an all-white jury wrongly convicted them of raping two white women – convictions that resulted in initial death sentences for eight of the youths.
One of the women later recanted the story. After a series of appeals, reversals and retrials, charges were eventually dropped against five of the Scottsboro Boys, though they had already served more than six years in prison. The other four received sentences between 75 years and life. Three of them were paroled by 1950, and the other died in prison in 1952. Clarence Norris in 1976 became the only Scottsboro Boy to receive a pardon.
Olen Montgomery (wearing glasses) and Eugene Williams (with suspenders) arrive triumphantly in Penn Station, New York City, on July 26, 1937, after charges against them and two others had been dropped two days earlier. – Photo: AP
But as Cohen noted at the news conference, the legacy of the Scottsboro Boys – and the two cases that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court – extends far beyond the nine Black youths pulled off a train in Alabama eight decades ago.
“Those two cases are in many ways a monument to the injustice the state of Alabama inflicted on the Scottsboro Boys,” Cohen said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded to ensure that the promises of the civil rights movement became a reality for all. SPLC can be reached at 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36104, (334) 956-8200 or online at http://www.splcenter.org/contact-us.