Scottsboro Trials

The trials of nine young African Americans on trumped-up rape charges mirrored both entrenched southern bigotry and antiliberal sentiments. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to grant the defendants a new trial expanded the rights of the accused to adequate counsel and due process of law.

Summary of Event

On March 25, 1931, nine young African Americans were pulled off a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama, after an alleged fight with a group of white youths. As the African Americans were being rounded up by sheriff’s deputies, two women passengers told onlookers that they had been raped by the entire group. Within a month, the boys had been tried in Scottsboro, and eight of them had been convicted and sentenced to death; the case of the youngest boy, only thirteen years of age, was declared a mistrial. Because of the speed of the convictions, the questionable nature of much of the testimony, and the hostile atmosphere in which the trial had been held, the case soon attracted widespread attention. Both the International Labor Defense International Labor Defense (ILD), an arm of the Communist Party, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) expressed concern about the possibility of injustice and launched an appeal for a new trial. The boys and their parents chose the ILD to manage their defense. [kw]Scottsboro Trials (Mar. 25, 1931-July, 1937)
[kw]Trials, Scottsboro (Mar. 25, 1931-July, 1937)
Scottsboro trials
Supreme Court, U.S.;Scottsboro trials
[g]United States;Mar. 25, 1931-July, 1937: Scottsboro Trials[07810]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 25, 1931-July, 1937: Scottsboro Trials[07810]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 25, 1931-July, 1937: Scottsboro Trials[07810]
Bates, Ruby
Price, Victoria
Montgomery, Olen
Norris, Clarence
Patterson, Haywood
Powell, Ozie
Roberson, Willie
Weems, Charlie
Williams, Eugene
Wright, Andy
Wright, Roy
Horton, James E.
Knight, Thomas E.
Leibowitz, Samuel

Defendant Haywood Patterson (center) appears in court in April, 1933.


The consolidated appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court as Powell v. Alabama (1932), Powell v. Alabama (1932) and the Court overturned the boys’ convictions and ordered that they be given new trials. The Court’s seven-to-two decision was based on the fact that the defendants had had access to counsel only immediately before the trial, preventing them from mounting an adequate defense. It also involved the lack of due deliberation in the overly speedy trial and the racial makeup of the jury.

Only three of the defendants were retried immediately. Their trials took place in Decatur, Alabama, from March to December, 1933. All three received convictions and death sentences, but the U.S. Supreme Court again sustained their appeal, this time on the basis of irregularities in the selection of jurors: The apellants pointed out that Decatur’s voting rolls showed no African Americans registered to vote in the county in spite of a very large population of qualified African Americans residing there. This issue was to reappear on several occasions over the course of the Scottsboro trials.

In January, 1936, a third group of trials, held in Decatur, resulted in the conviction of Haywood Patterson, who was sentenced to seventy-five years in prison. After more than a year of delay and behind-the-scenes negotiations between Alabama state officials and a group of the defendants’ supporters, the remaining eight were tried in the summer of 1937. One received the death penalty, three were sentenced to long prison terms, and the other four were released without charges. Although the one death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, the five convicted Scottsboro boys were unable to obtain any further reversals of their convictions. One of them was paroled in 1943, two more in 1946, and a fourth in 1950. The final prisoner escaped from a work gang in 1948 and managed to reach Michigan, whose governor refused to extradite him back to Alabama. The former defendant quickly found himself in trouble, however, committing a murder and being sentenced to Michigan’s worst prison. He was unable to escape the environment in which he had spent most of his days, the prison.

It was not simply the length of the Scottsboro trials that accounted for the vast amount of publicity they attracted throughout the 1930’s. Most observers outside Alabama and an increasingly large number of people within the state came to believe that the defendants were innocent and were, therefore, the victims of southern racial injustice. One of their two accusers, Ruby Bates, had retracted her testimony by 1934 and admitted that she had lied in her original accusations. The other, a prostitute named Victoria Price, presented testimony so full of contradictions that one of the judges in the 1933 trials, Alabamian James E. Horton, overruled the jury’s guilty verdict and declared a mistrial. At least one of the defendants was ruled physically incapable of rape, and a physician testified that a medical examination of Bates and Price, performed shortly after the presumed attack, did not support their claims. Although both women were found to have had recent sexual intercourse, there were no contusions or other injuries that would have matched their stories about brutality at the hands of the nine men. None of this had any appreciable effect on the juries, the prosecutors, or Judge William W. Callahan, who presided after Horton was removed from the case. Even the milder sentences meted out in 1937 resulted as much from a desire to end the unfavorable publicity surrounding the trials as from any reevaluation of the evidence. That is why four of the defendants were eventually released on the same testimony that convicted the other five.


Aside from serving as a symbol of southern bigotry, the Scottsboro trials attracted attention because of the efforts of the Communist Party Communist Party;U.S. to identify the cause of the defendants with their own. Working through the ILD, the Communist Party was one of the first groups to protest the verdicts in the 1931 trials, and it was the only group to offer direct aid at that time. For several years, the party engaged in a running battle with the NAACP and an “American Scottsboro Committee” over the right to manage the boys’ defense. The effect of these struggles was to unite many Alabamians against all “reds and foreigners” and make it more difficult to revise the verdicts.

The chief defense counsel after 1931 was Samuel Leibowitz, a Jewish attorney from New York who became the target of scurrilous attacks from the prosecutors. Even he, along with Judge Callahan and part of the Alabama press, came to regard the defendants’ Communist support as a liability, and Leibowitz sought to dissociate the ILD from the case. In 1935, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union and the ILD joined to form the Scottsboro Defense Committee Scottsboro Defense Committee (SDC), which was designed to coordinate support for the defendants and seek cooperation from moderate Alabamians. Although the ILD played a much smaller role in the case from that point on, there remained enough hostility toward outside interference in Alabama to frustrate the SDC’s efforts.

The Scottsboro case mirrored many of the important social currents of the 1930’s. Although it illustrated the extent to which white southerners would go to defend a system of white supremacy, it also marked a change from the not-too-distant era when the defendants might well have been summarily lynched. The hysterical attitude with which many Alabamians reacted to outside interest in the case underlined a regional insecurity that had been intensified by the unsettled conditions of the Great Depression. It was common for both men and women to hop onto freight trains, which the nine men had done, as had the two alleged victims. The Scottsboro boys had gotten into a fight with several white men. In Scottsboro and Decatur, race was on trial, not nine boys and men, much to the lasting chagrin of the state of Alabama. The episode would not end until 1976, when the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Clarence Norris a full pardon. It thus took forty-five years for justice to be served. Scottsboro trials
Supreme Court, U.S.;Scottsboro trials

Further Reading

  • Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Rev. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979. Reprint. Delanco, N.J.: Gryphon Editions, 2000. Analyzes the trials and treatment of the nine African Americans and discusses the impact of the events on the South.
  • Chalmers, Allan Knight. They Shall Be Free. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951. An account of the Scottsboro trials from the perspective of one of the defense attorneys who also argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Khan, Lin Shi, and Tony Perez. Scottsboro, Alabama: A Story in Linoleum Cuts. Edited by Andrew H. Lee. Foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley. New York: New York University Press, 2002. A fascinating primary source, this collection of 118 linocuts was unearthed by an NYU librarian. Originally created in 1935, they tell the story of the Scottsboro trials as a parable of the working classes resisting the tyranny of the ruling class. Bibliographic references.
  • Levy, Leonard, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Volume 3 provides ancillary but detailed analysis of decisions made by the Supreme Court in these cases.
  • Norris, Clarence, and Sybil D. Washington. The Last of the Scottsboro Boys. New York: Putnam, 1979. The last and most literate of the defendants presents his case. Valuable for its perspective and the view of prison conditions over many years.
  • Patterson, Haywood, and Earl Conrad. Scottsboro Boy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1950. The first book to shed personal light on the plight of the nine, it remains a powerful testament to a decade of injustice.

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