“Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through Rape Trials

The arrest of nine African American youths in 1931 for rape began a long-standing legal ordeal that ruined the lives of most of the young men. The years of trials, sentencing, and appeals, however, would lead to the expansion of constitutional rights for criminal defendants.

Summary of Event

On the morning of March 25, 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, seven disheveled young white men appeared at a railroad station office in northern Alabama. They reported that they had been riding on a freight train as hoboes when “a bunch of Negroes” had assaulted them and thrown them off the train. The station master telephoned the local sheriff’s office. As soon as the train arrived at the nearby depot in Paint Rock, a deputized posse arrested nine African American youth and two white teenage girls. At first, it appeared that the girls were arrested for vagrancy and that the males were arrested for both vagrancy and assault. However, while the detainees were being transported to the jail at Scottsboro, about ten miles east of the depot, one of the girls, Ruby Bates, claimed that she and her friend, Victoria Price, had been raped by the nine young black men. “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys]
Rape;and “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys]
Patterson, Haywood
Norris, Clarence
Wright, Roy
Leibowitz, Samuel
[kw]”Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through Rape Trials (Mar. 30, 1931)[Scottsboro Boys]
[kw]Rape Trials, “Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through (Mar. 30, 1931)
“Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys]
Rape;and “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys]
Patterson, Haywood
Norris, Clarence
Wright, Roy
Leibowitz, Samuel
[g]United States;Mar. 30, 1931: “Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through Rape Trials[00500]
[c]Racism;Mar. 30, 1931: “Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through Rape Trials[00500]
[c]Law and the courts;Mar. 30, 1931: “Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through Rape Trials[00500]
[c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 30, 1931: “Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through Rape Trials[00500]
[c]Government;Mar. 30, 1931: “Scottsboro Boys” Are Railroaded Through Rape Trials[00500]
Price, Victoria
Bates, Ruby

Haywood Patterson, one of the defendants in the Scottsboro case, at trial in 1933.


In Scottsboro, the sheriff had the two women examined by separate physicians. As the alleged rapes became widely known, an angry mob of approximately five hundred townspeople threatened to lynch the detainees. The sheriff notified the Alabama governor, who then dispatched National National Guard;and “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys] Guard troops to help maintain the peace. The mob dispersed after assurances of speedy trials and prompt sentencing.

As was typical for many African Americans during the Depression, the nine suspects were poor, uneducated, and without financial resources. They had hitched a ride on the freight train to seek employment. Five of the youths were from Georgia and four were from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Twenty-year-old Charles Weems was the eldest of the nine. Both Eugene Williams and Roy Wright were only thirteen years old. Seventeen-year-old Olin Montgomery was legally blind. Willie Robertson, also seventeen years old, suffered from syphilis and walked unsteadily with a cane.

On March 30, a grand jury indicted all nine of the so-called Scottsboro boys for the capital crime of rape. Judge Alfred Hawkins invited local attorneys to represent the defendants without pay, but no attorneys volunteered. Although Tennessee attorney Stephen Roddy and a local attorney agreed to assist in an informal way, they made no effort to investigate the case, and they spoke to the defendants just thirty minutes before the trials began. Roddy, who had a criminal record for drunkenness, was reportedly inebriated during part of the proceedings. The youth were tried in four separate trials, all of which were concluded within a single week (April 6-7, April 7-8, April 8-9, and April 9).

In courtroom testimony, Price claimed that she had been gang-raped and “beaten up” until she “lost consciousness.” Supporting her story, Bates added that a defendant had held a knife to their throats. One of the examining physicians, R. R. Bridges, reported having seen a few scratches and bruises on the two accusers but no evidence of violent rape. He went on to say that both young women showed evidence of having had recent sexual intercourse, and that even though the semen was “nonmotile,” or inactive, he refused to estimate its age.

Defendant Wright, who testified that the rapes had taken place, later renounced his confession as coerced. The defendants, except Wright, were sentenced to death. Wright’s trial was inconclusive because of a hung jury: eleven jurors voted for the death penalty and one juror voted for life imprisonment. The executions were stayed pending appeals. The rapidity of the trials and the severity of the sentences infuriated liberals and radicals throughout the United States. In Harlem, New York, 300,000 protesters marched to the slogan “The Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die.”

All but one of the sentences were upheld by Alabama’s highest court. Both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Communist Party;and “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys] Communist Party’s International Labor Defense (ILD) offered to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S.;and “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys] Supreme Court, but the defendants chose the latter organization to represent them. The result was the landmark case of Powell v. Alabama (1932)
Powell v. Alabama (1932), in which the Court overturned the convictions and held that the principles of due process required the states to provide indigent defendants in capital cases with effective counsel. The cases were remanded to the lower court.

When the state ordered new trials, the ILD engaged a noted criminal defense lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, to represent the defendants. Haywood Patterson was the first to stand trial. Surprisingly, Bates changed her story and confessed that she had lied at the first trial, but the prosecutor suggested that she was being paid by the ILD. Patterson was sentenced to death, but Judge James Horton set aside the conviction as unreasonable and ordered a new trial. In his third trial, Patterson again received a death penalty. Shortly thereafter, Clarence Norris also was sentenced to death. In a second landmark decision, however, the Court, in Norris v. Alabama (1935)
Norris v. Alabama (1935), reversed both convictions, based on the systematic exclusion of African Americans from the jury.

In 1936, Patterson was convicted a fourth time and sentenced to seventy-five years in prison. All charges against four of the defendants were dismissed. The next year, the remaining four were tried and found guilty. Norris was sentenced to death, Wright was sentenced to ninety-nine years, Weems was sentenced to seventy-five years, and Powell received a sentence of twenty years for stabbing a guard while attempting an escape.

In 1938, Alabama governor Bibb Graves was close to pardoning the five prisoners, but after meeting with them, he decided that they were dangerous and undeserving of a pardon. In 1943, Weems was released from prison, and in 1950 Wright was pardoned. Patterson escaped in 1948 and was arrested in Michigan during the 1950’s, but the governor of Michigan refused to extradite him to Alabama. The last prisoner, Norris, was finally given a full pardon by Alabama governor George Wallace in 1976.


Based on the weakness of the evidence, most scholars have concluded that the nine black youths were not given fair trials and that, almost certainly, they were innocent of rape. The accused spent years in prison, and their unfair incarceration embittered most of them for the remainder of their lives. In the South under a Jim Crow system, blatant racial discrimination was common in the criminal justice system, but that racism usually escaped public attention. The publicity surrounding the Scottsboro case helped many understand the nature of “southern justice.” The legal battles came to symbolize the unfair treatment of African Americans and encouraged legal reform.

Furthermore, the long Scottsboro case led to two landmark decisions by the Supreme Court, U.S.;and “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys] Supreme Court that significantly expanded the rights of criminal defendants. In Powell the Court declared that indigent criminal defendants have a constitutional right to an attorney. Norris was the first case in which the Court held that systematic exclusion in jury selections may deprive defendants of due process and the equal protection of the law. Both precedents, which were based on the Fourteenth Amendment, were expanded and refined by the Court in later cases. “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys]
Rape;and “Scottsboro Boys”[Scottsboro Boys]
Patterson, Haywood
Norris, Clarence
Wright, Roy
Leibowitz, Samuel

Further Reading

  • Acker, James. Scottsboro and Its Legacy: The Cases That Challenged American Legal and Social Justice. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. Particularly good in its analysis of the court proceedings and legal principles.
  • Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. Widely acclaimed as the most readable and dependable account of the long controversy.
  • Goodman, James. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. A compelling account demonstrating how persons and groups formulate alternative narratives about historical events.
  • Haskins, James. The Scottsboro Boys. New York: Henry Holt, 1994. A brief summary written primarily for young readers.
  • Horne, Gerald. Powell v. Alabama: The Scottsboro Boys and American Justice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1997. A good account of the case in which the Supreme Court first recognized a conditional right of indigent defendants to counsel in criminal trials.
  • Mbiassi, Kwando. The Man from Scottsboro: Clarence Norris and the Infamous 1931 Alabama Rape Trial, in His Own Words. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. An interesting account based largely on interviews with Norris.
  • Patterson, Haywood, and Earl Conrad. Scottsboro Boy. London: Victor Gollancz, 1950. A fascinating memoir that includes Patterson’s perceptions of the trials and his experiences with violent prisons.

Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution

Muslim Leader Elijah Muhammad Is Sued for Paternity

Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths

Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers

Basketball Star Kobe Bryant Is Accused of Rape

Duke Lacrosse Players Are Accused of Gang Rape