The Scottsboro Boys #BlackHistoryMonth

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I dedicate this post to Olen Montgomery (age 17), Clarence Norris (age 19), Haywood Patterson (age 18), Ozie Powell (age 16), Willie Roberson (age 17), Charlie Weems (age 19), Eugene Williams (age 13), Andy Wright(age 19), and Roy Wright (age 12) – to the Scottsboro Boys. There have been many horrific cases in black history but for some odd reason, I have never in my life been able to forget this one. It’s been about four years now since I heard of this case and I always come back to it every now and then. I am glad I have such a platform as this little blog of mine to share these men’s story.

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The case of the Scottsboro Boys is a rather sad and long one. The boys were nine black male teenagers who were falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women (Victoria Price, and Ruby Bates, pictured above) on a freight train in 1931. Clarence Norris, the eldest of the boys, called the girls liars and was immediately struck by a bayonet by the officer present at the time. Furthermore, in the jail on that March 25th, Victoria Price pointed out six of the nine boys and said that they were the ones who raped her but the guard allegedly responded by saying, “If those six had Miss Price, it stands to reason that the others had Miss Bates.” This case as I said was long and sad and so very interesting and I will only give a brief description in the hopes that you do your own research for yourself. The case set the precedent with following legal cases in that it dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. Unfortunately, as was the norm back then, this case included an angry lynch mob before the nine men had even been indicted, a frame up, an all white jury, rushed trials, and disruptive mobs. Many local newspapers had made their biased and racially motivated conclusions about the boys before the trials began with one headline reading;

“ALL NEGROES POSITIVELY IDENTIFIED BY GIRLS AND ONE WHITE BOY WHO WAS HELD PRISONER WITH PISTOL AND KNIVES WHILE NINE BLACK FIENDS COMMITTED REVOLTING CRIME.”

This case is often referred to as an example of an overall miscarriage of justice. As we are seeing currently with the likes of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. Representing the Scottsboro Boys in this heartbreaking case was Stephen Roddy and Milo Moody. First of, Roddy was an unpaid and unprepared Chattanooga real estate attorney who, on the first day of trial, was “so stewed he could hardly walk straight.”  Then, Moody was a forgetful seventy-year old local attorney who hadn’t tried a case in decades. Fair trial my caboose.

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Several people were “hoboing” (a travelling worker) on a freight train travelling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1931. Part of those hoboing were white teenagers who reported to the sheriff present that they had been attacked by a group of black teenagers. The white teenagers reporting this incident had no evident scars and/or bruises that they would have sustained from said attack. At Paint Rock, Alabama, the sheriff stopped and searched the train with his men and arrested the nine black teenagers. Upon seeing this, two young white women also got off the train, and accused the black teens of rape. The case was initially heard in Scottsboro, Alabama, in what was three rushed trials in which the boys received poor legal representation. All boys but twelve-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death – the common sentence in Alabama at the time for black men convicted of raping white women. Make note that there was absolutely no medical evidence to prove of such a crime. The American Communist Party helped the case get appealed but, it got even more twisted and sad and just unnecessarily confusing. It was biased. 

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Eventually, for four of the nine boys, the charges were dropped. Sentences for those charged ranged from 75 years to death and life sentences were considered an acknowledgement of innocence at the time. Go figure. But, nonetheless, all but two served prison sentences. One was sadly shot in prison by a guard and permanently injured. For those five Scottsboro Boys left in Alabama, they had a new demon with which to contend. They struggled with life in prison. One of Haywood Patterson’s jobs was to carry out the bodies of electrocuted inmates.  They sodomized or were sodomized; they assaulted or were assaulted. They survived, but barely. It was either through paroles or escapes that all of the Scottsboro Boys eventually made their way out of Alabama. Charles Weems was paroled in 1943, Ozie Powell and Clarence Norris in 1946, and Andy Wright, was the last to leave Alabama for good (Wright had been paroled earlier, then returned because of a parole violation) in June, 1950.  Haywood Patterson managed a dramatic escape in 1948. Patterson and Norris each went on to participate in the writing of successful and thought provoking and emotional books about their lives.  Patterson’s book, Scottsboro Boy, was published in 1950 while he was a fugitive. Unfortunately, shortly after its publication, Patterson was arrested by the FBI, but, thankfully, the Governor G. Mennen Williams of Michigan, refused Alabama’s extradition request.  Norris published his book, The Last of the Scottsboro Boys, in 1979 and sadly, ten years later, on January 23, 1989, the last of the Scottsboro Boys was dead.

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Samuel Leibowitz and Haywood Patterson with his good luck horseshoe.

On November 21, 2013 (yeah, two bloody fucking years ago), Alabama’s Parole Board voted to grant posthumous pardons to the three Scottsboro Boys who had not been pardoned or had their convictions overturned. I dedicate this post to Olen Montgomery (age 17), Clarence Norris (age 19), Haywood Patterson (age 18), Ozie Powell (age 16), Willie Roberson (age 17), Charlie Weems (age 19), Eugene Williams (age 13), Andy Wright(age 19), and Roy Wright (age 12) – to the Scottsboro Boys.

Currently, the story of The Scottsboro Boys has been of course commercialized and made into a musical with a book by David Thompson, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The musical features a cast of entirely black individuals except for one. It debuted Off-Broadway and then successfully moved to Broadway in 2010 and was there for two months. It, not surprisingly, received twelve Tony Award nominations but again, not surprisingly, did not win any. It played in U.S. Regional Theatres in 2010, moved to London in 2013, where, after an outstanding sell-out production at the Young Vic, moved to the West End in 2014.

May we never ever forget these boys and the undeniable trauma and misuse of power that these boys endured. We always remember The Scottsboro Boys. #BlackHistoryMonth

Sources: here, here, here.

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