The Scottsboro Trials Paved the Way for Civil Rights 

The Scottsboro Trials may not be well known by most people today, but they helped pave the way for several things in Alabama.

Leading the list is Civil Rights reform, as well as stopping the white supremacists and the way they used to run the state, and the south as a whole.

The Scottsboro SuspectsThe Scottsboro Suspects

While this infamous case led to most of today’s leading Civil Rights organizations, most people do not know the communist side that played a major role.

It was one of the biggest cases in the history of the county for miscarriage of justice and set the stage for the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

The History of the Scottsboro Trials 

The Nine Suspects In The Scottsboro TrialsThe Nine Suspects In The Scottsboro Trials

The history of the Scottsboro Trials starts with the Jim Crow laws that were governing the south, including Alabama, in the early part of the 19th century.

These horrendous “laws” were established in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s and set in motion the legal separation between whites and African Americans.

These ‘laws” restricted African Americans from voting, using public facilities, the right to find a good job, and basically stopped them from exercising their basic freedoms.

These rights included properly defending themselves against white supremacy, and this included their right to set on juries.

In the spring of 1931 when this “incident” occurred, these laws were very much alive and well, and dictated local laws and the justice system.

The incident that led to the Scottsboro Trials happened on March 25, 1931, on a freight train that was traveling through Jackson County, Alabama.

On this freight train were a group of white youths and a group of black youths, as well as two young white women.

A fight broke out between the two groups, and the white young men were forced off of the train.

However, they quickly regrouped and found a place where they could send a wire message to the next stop on the train, to report what had happened.

Fully understanding the Jim Crow laws, they asked for help from fellow whites at the next stop, to apprehend the nine black youths involved in the fight.

As soon as the wire was sent, a white mob was organized, and they helped the police stop the train and arrest these nine black youths, when it stopped at Paint Rock, Alabama.

These nine young black men were Clearance Norris, Olen Montgomery, Ozzie Powell, Willie Roberson, and Haywood Patterson.

It also included Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems, as well as Andy and Roy Wright, who were brothers.

They ranged in age from 13 years old to 20 years old, and other than four of them that knew each other, they had just met for the first time on the train.

However, there were also two young white women on the train, which would become household names, when the famous Scottsboro Trials began.

They were Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, who were riding the freight train looking for work in Alabama.

Once the train stopped and they saw the mob and the police, they panicked because of the other laws in the south at the time, the vagrancy and morality laws. 

The Vagrancy Act of 1866 was set up after the Civil War to punish blacks that were now free, that appeared to have no gainful employment.

It was designed to force them into “employment” for a term of three months, for simply looking for work or for lost relatives.

The morality laws in the south followed the Crow laws and forbid white women intermingling with blacks.

So, they did the only thing they could think of doing at the time, in fear of being arrested themselves for vagrancy and worse yet morality; they lied. 

They falsely accused these nine young black men of raping them, and one of them, Ruby Bates, who later recount her story in an attempt to help them.

The law and the mob now had all the evidence they needed, and the nine young black men were arrested.

Once arrested, they were taken to the nearby town of Scottsboro, which is in northeastern Alabama, about 45 miles east of Huntsville.

Over the course of the following seven years, the Scottsboro Trials would make its way to both the State and Federal highest courts and became an international sensation.

To the rest of the world outside of Alabama, it highlighted the South's history of both legal and extralegal racial violence, as well as discrimination.

The Scottsboro Trials

Newspaper Coverage of the Scottsboro TrialNewspaper Coverage of the Scottsboro Trial

The first set of the Scottsboro Trials began in April of 1931 and would set the stage for the lingering divide that already was in place between the north and the south.

These first trials took place in four different groups and only lasted for 4 days, while the Alabama National Guard watched.

They were called in by the Governor of Alabama at the time, Benjamin Miller, to help control the thousands of angry white protesters.

These trials were held before an all-white jury and what was considered to be a very hostile judge, as well as what history shows was a very weak public defender.

This weak public defender feared for his own life, and he failed to cross examine witnesses and challenger the prosecution in any way.

It only took the all-white juries in each of these four trials hours to reach a guilty verdict, and eight of the nine young black men were sentenced to death.

However, a mistrial was declared on the 13 years old young man, Roy White, as the jury was split over his guilt.

The executions for the eight young blacks were set, and these cases would have gone down as just a side note in history, but something very strange happened to change that.

The ILD, better known as the International Labor Defense, stepped into the case, and this was considered to be a radical legal organization.

However, it had a very strange sponsor that had a lot of growing support in the country at the time, the Communist Party USA.

They saw this case as a powerful recruitment tool for their own cause, as they had their sights set on the country’s African Americans as potential members.

Because of this, the nine young black men immediately trusted them, and they won a very quick stay of execution until the Alabama Supreme Court could hear the case.

The Scottsboro TrialsThe Scottsboro Trials

However, the influence that the Communist Party USA brought to the Scottsboro Trials only added fuel to the fire, to what was now the “country’s most watched trial”.

The International Labor Defense and the NAACP considered bitter enemies at the time, but the NAACP did little or nothing to help.

As a result, the ILD saw this as a huge opportunity to win over the growing black population in the country, and thus win them over to their cause.

They also recognized that they could not win these cases by conventional means, so they started a huge media campaign to help their cause.

They also wanted to expose the “racism” in the Alabama justice system, and they did everything in their power to take it from the local stage to the international stage.

The appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court went nowhere, so the ILD turned their attention the U.S. Supreme Court.

In November of 1932 the nation’s highest court overruled the Alabama Supreme Court, and new trials were set up.

The Supreme Court labeled these new Scottsboro Trials as Powell vs Alabama, which told the country one thing blacks had been wanting for years to hear.

African Americans had equal protection from the Fourteenth Amendment, and as such, had the right to adequate council.

Then something extremely important happened for these young black men; Ruby Bates recounted her story of the rape charges.

She confessed that Victoria Price made the entire story up, so they would not face vagrancy or morality changes, for being on the freight train.

The new attorney for the young black men also found numerous holes in Ms. Price’s testimony, and used the medical tests taken on the women after the incident as evidence.

However, even with this new evidence a jury still convicted the young men, but the Judge, James Horton, ruled against the jury.

The State of Alabama still kept pursuing the case, and the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in again in 1935.

They deemed that the third convictions were also unfair, because African Americans had been systemically excluded from the Jackson County Jury rolls, and thus could not receive a fair trial.

While these decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for the Civil Rights laws in the country, in human terms, the Scottsboro Trials were a tragedy.

The defendants in the trials lives were ruined by the long legal troubles, and the years they spent in the Alabama prison system.

Once released from prison they struggled in life, but the trials did help to undermine the structure of white supremacy in Alabama and the nation.


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