Plea from a Scottsboro Boy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the Great Depression, thousands of men and women rode freight trains across the country looking for work or adventure or escaping intolerable circumstances at home. On a freight train in Alabama in 1931, a fight broke out between a group of white men and African American youths. When two women were found to be on board the train, the black men were accused of rape. Andy Wright was one of the so-called Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine African American teenagers convicted of raping the two young white women. The case polarized the nation, as threatened lynching, numerous court maneuvers, celebrity lawyers, and dramatic reversals revealed a justice system in the American South that routinely denied African Americans the right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers and with a competent defense. In this letter, written six years after his initial arrest and published in The Nation, Wright pleads with the nation to consider his case.

Summary Overview

During the Great Depression, thousands of men and women rode freight trains across the country looking for work or adventure or escaping intolerable circumstances at home. On a freight train in Alabama in 1931, a fight broke out between a group of white men and African American youths. When two women were found to be on board the train, the black men were accused of rape. Andy Wright was one of the so-called Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine African American teenagers convicted of raping the two young white women. The case polarized the nation, as threatened lynching, numerous court maneuvers, celebrity lawyers, and dramatic reversals revealed a justice system in the American South that routinely denied African Americans the right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers and with a competent defense. In this letter, written six years after his initial arrest and published in The Nation, Wright pleads with the nation to consider his case.

Defining Moment

On March 25, 1931, a group of young men and women, white and African American, were riding a Southern Railroad freight train headed for Memphis, Tennessee. One of the white men allegedly stepped on the hand of a young black man named Haywood Patterson, and a fight broke out between the two groups. Eventually, all but one of the white men were forced to jump from the train, and they notified the local sheriff that they had been attacked. The sheriff wired ahead to the next station, in Paint Rock, Alabama, and a posse formed to meet the train. At the Paint Rock station, nine African American teenagers, the oldest nineteen and the youngest at most thirteen years old, were arrested, tied together, and marched off to the jail in Scottsboro, Alabama.

When two young women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, were also found to have been on the train, the situation took a dramatic and dangerous turn. The women claimed that they had been raped by the men in the Scottsboro jail at knife and gunpoint, and they were examined by a doctor who found physical evidence of sexual activity. The legal penalty for a black man raping a white woman in Alabama was death, although the legal process was often circumvented: African American men accused of assaulting white women were often lynched in the South, hanged by a crowd while law enforcement either participated in the killing or ignored it. The posse that met the train in Alabama in 1931 quickly turned into a lynch mob, when word of the alleged rapes began to spread. The young men barely escaped with their lives when the Scottsboro sheriff managed to hold off the attack and then called in the Alabama National Guard to protect the young men.

On March 30, a grand jury indicted all nine of the Scottsboro Boys, and the trials were set immediately because of the extremely volatile environment. Lawyers for the defendants were hastily selected and of questionable quality. Within ten days, all but one of the Scottsboro Boys had been sentenced to death. The fate of Roy Wright, the younger brother of the Andy Wright, was inconclusive, when one juror held out against the death penalty because of his age–he was thirteen. The execution date for the other eight was set for the earliest available date, July 10, 1931.

As news spread across the nation of the age of the accused, the lynch mob, the hasty trials, and the severe verdicts, the American public became polarized, with many in the North calling for new trials for the boys and many in the South defending the verdict. Progressive and civil rights organizations, primarily the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the International Labor Defense (ILD), a Communist legal advocacy organization, became involved in the case. Appeals were filed, and the Alabama Supreme Court stayed the executions of the youths just seventy-two hours before they were scheduled to die. In March 1932, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld all of the convictions except one, also on account of age (thirteen).

In October 1932, the case went to the US Supreme Court, where the ILD lawyer argued persuasively that there had been no jurors of color, and rolls that showed African American names had been forged. In the high court's ruling in Powell v. Alabama, the convictions were overturned and sent back to Alabama for a retrial. Once again the men were convicted, though Ruby Bates now claimed that she had never been raped. In the end, after another appeal to the Supreme Court (Patterson v. Alabama, 1935), the men were returned to jail, though none was ultimately executed. The last of the Scottsboro Boys to leave prison was Andy Wright, who was finally freed in 1950. All of them were eventually pardoned, the last three posthumously, in 2013.

Author Biography

Andy Wright was born in 1912 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He attended school until the sixth grade, when he left to help support his family after the death of his father. Wright drove a truck for a while, but he lost that position when the company learned of his young age. He boarded the Southern Railroad train in March of 1931, at age nineteen, with his younger brother Roy and two friends, because he had heard there were government jobs in Memphis. Wright was convicted of rape conclusively in 1937, and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. He was paroled in 1943, but he fled Alabama in violation of the terms of his parole. He was returned to prison and was finally released for good in 1950, after which he moved to Albany, New York. In Albany, Wright was again accused of rape, and although he was eventually acquitted, he spent another eight months in jail. Wright also lived in New York City and Cleveland, Ohio. He is believed to have spent the last years of his life in Connecticut, although his death date is not known.

Document Analysis

Wright's 1937 letter to the editors of The Nation magazine begins with his statement of innocence: “I was framed, cheated, and robbed of my freedom.” He is concerned that though the public may have read about his case, they do not know the facts. “I feel it is my duty to write you all the facts of my case, which you perhaps overlooked, or perhaps it was not published in the papers.” Wright also mentions that he was questioned for several days without being charged with rape, in the hope that he would turn against some of the other accused. He says he was charged with rape because of his refusal to testify against his codefendants: “Just because I didn't know nothing, nor neither would I lie on the other boys the charge of rape was framed and placed against me.”

Wright sent this letter just after his second conviction, after the US Supreme Court had reversed the first conviction, and Wright had been retried. He outlines the reasons why he believes the trial was unfair and based on a presupposition of guilt on the part of the judge: “Out of his one hour and twenty-five minutes summation he only mentioned acquittal three times and each time he contradicted it by saying if you juries find a doubt which goes to me reconsider it.” He further mentions that the judge made no reference to any defense witnesses during his summation.

Wright sees this and his treatment over the previous six years as proof that justice is impossible in Alabama. He pleads with the readers of his letter for help. “I beg you, dear friends, readers, all stick together and work and struggle together and see that justice be brought to light.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this letter is the author's plea with the public to believe in his innocence and help him. He lays out the reasons why his conviction is unjust and he feels that he will not receive justice in Alabama without the intervention of outsiders. He feels that he needs to fight the conviction, not only because of his innocence, but because “slander is being thrown on our race of people and my family.”

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Aretha, David. The Trial of the Scottsboro Boys. Greensboro: Morgan Reynolds, 2007. Print.
  • Blinder, Alan. “Alabama Pardons 3 ‘Scottsboro Boys’ after 80 Years.” New York Times. New York Times, 21 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 June 2014.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., & Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African America Lives. New York: Oxford UP. 2004. Print.
  • Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper, 2007. Print.
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