Scottsboro: A Civil Rights Milestone

WNYC History Notes

Friday, February 01, 2013 - 11:00 AM

It was the Great Depression. Nine young black men were hoboing, riding a freight train to Memphis, Tennessee in search of work, but their ride was cut short. At Scottsboro, Alabama the police hauled them off the train: the young men, ages 13 to 21, were accused of raping two white women who were on the train. For black men in the 1930s in the Deep South, such a charge could be fatal. Like so many others who had died by trial or lynching, the Scottsboro Boys (as they came to be called) were falsely accused, a fact that meant almost nothing. In March, 1931 eight of them were sentenced to death, while the fate of the ninth, 13-year-old Roy Wright, hovered dangerously close to life in prison before ending in a mistrial.

The case of the Scottsboro Boys (Charlie Weems, Willie Robeson, Olen Montgomery, Ozzie Powell, Eugene Williams, Roy and Andy Wright, Clarence Norris, and Heywood Paterson) became a worldwide cause célèbre, a symbol of American injustice. Although they were not put to death, altogether the Scottsboro Boys spent more than 100 years in jail for a crime they did not commit. While the case is a largely forgotten landmark in American civil rights history, for many, blacks and whites, the Scottsboro Boys and memories of those times in the South remain vivid and indelible.

As far as Scottsboro's impact on the law is concerned, there were two major U.S. Supreme Court rulings in this case: one upheld a defendant's right to effective counsel under due process; the other prohibited the exclusion of jurors based on race. These two decisions were effectively the first substantive legal efforts undermining the climate of fear and intimidation that reigned over African-Americans in the South --what historian James Goodman simply calls "southern injustice": "To know that [type of] injustice as black people knew it, it was necessary to know it in the parts of the body that produce nausea, chills sweat, and tears, to have it knock the wind out of you and triple the beat of your heart..."[1]  In his compelling 1994 work Stories of Scottsboro, Goodman goes on to write:

Knowledge of southern injustice came in part from fear of it; and fear came from the knowledge that the color of your skin made you a  suspect--a suspect that looked just like the prime suspect--every time the police were looking for a black man. It came from knowledge that if arrested, you were likely to be subject to the third degree; if indicted, you were likely to be unrepresented; if convicted, sentenced to a longer term in prison or on the chain gang than a white man convicted of the same crime. The fear came from the near inescapability of the danger, the sense that no matter how careful and deliberate your every expression, word and deed, no matter how unblemished your past, how fine or widely recognized your reputation, no matter how prosperous you were or how well placed, no matter how unshakable your alibi, you were not immune from false accusation, mistaken identity, wrongful conviction, and punishment.[2]

This audio documentary takes a look at that injustice through the voices of some of the people who were involved in the Scottsboro case, including defendant Clarence Norris, as well as those who have studied the case. The program was produced and narrated by Andy Lanset. It was originally broadcast by WNYC and the NPR Horizons series in 1992.

Special thanks to Donna Limerick, CBS Archives, Gary Daughters, Leonard Lopate, David Rapkin, and the late David Nolan, with engineering by Manoli Wetherell and Neal Rauch at NPR in New York.

The nine Scottsboro defendants with National Guardsmen outside of the Scottsboro jail, March 26, 1931, the day after they were arrested. From left to right: Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Olin Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems, Roy Wright and Haywood Patterson. (© Bettmann/CORBIS/Corbis Images)

[1] Goodman, James, Stories of Scottsboro, Vintage Books, 1995, pg. 248.

[2] Ibid.                   

An Original Radio Newsreel Report on the Scottsboro Case in 1932

In the early 1930s many radio stations broadcast syndicated radio newsreel programs like The March of Time and The News in Review. Because the programs largely pre-date the widespread availability of truly portable recording equipment, these early 'news' shows were typically reenactments or dramatizations of the week's leading news stories, and were often a bit sloppy when it came to the facts and journalistic standards. In this rare November 20, 1932 episode of The News Parade broadcast over WMCA in New York, the Scottsboro case is brought up through the first of its two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, concluding with the dramatization of a Communist Party demonstration on the steps of the Capitol in support of a fair retrial for the Scottsboro defendants.


Licensed for use only on WNYC History Notes blog.
© Bettmann/CORBIS/Corbis Images
The Scottsboro accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.
Andy Lanset Collection
July 1, 1931 clipping from Workers News, an English language weekly published in Moscow.
NAACP Records/Library of Congress
NAACP attorney Juanita E. Jackson (4th from left) visiting Scottsboro boys, January 1937. Jackson was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland law school.
wikipedia commons
John Gates was active in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys. He later became the editor of the Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker.
International News Photo
Attorney Samuel Liebowitz introduces Ruby Bates as a speaker at the Scottsboro protest meeting in New York City on May 5, 1933.

It was Bates' first public speech on behalf of the nine defendants. She said at the time that she wanted to "live down" what she had said against the youths in their first trial.

New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
Samuel S. Leibowitz (center), attorney for the Scottsboro case defendants, flanked by court appointed bodyguards L.M. Ouzts (left) and W.L. Snow (right), 1933.
Baltimore Sun
April 2, 1935 newspaper clipping from The Baltimore Sun.
New Orleans Times Picayune
April 10, 1933 newspaper clipping from the New Orleans Times Picayune
New York World Sun and Telegram Collection/Library of Congress
Clarence Norris, one of the nine defendants in the "Scottsboro case", walks through the main cell gate at Kilby prison in Montgomery, Alabama, after receiving his parole in 1946.


Andy Lanset Collection

On February 21, 1934, John Wexley's play about the Scottsboro case, They Shall Not Die, opened at New York's Royale Theater. The cast included  Ruth Gordon, Helen Westley, Dean Jagger, Claude Rains, and Ben Smith.

Andy Lanset collection

The Scottsboro Boys was a staged musical portrayal of the Scottsboro case. The show premiered Off Broadway in February 2010 and moved to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre in October 2010. Despite good reviews, the show failed to attract large audiences—perhaps due to its controversial subject matter and its minstrel show format. It closed on December 12, 2010.

Andy Lanset Collection
Cover of a 1937 pamphlet by civil rights activist Angelo Herndon
Andy Lanset Collection
A Scottsboro song written by Eli Siegmeister, and sung by him in the radio documentary. (The names listed are pen names).
Andy Lanset Collection
Scottsboro support pin from the 1930s. (Andy Lanset Collection)
Andy Lanset Collection

Scottsboro defendant Heywood Patterson in a publicity photo for his book Scottsboro Boy, published in June 1950.

(Bill Price/A.Lanset Collection)

Clarence Norris, the last of the Scottsboro Boys in a publicity photo for his book The Last of the Scottsboro Boys in 1979.

Andy Lanset Collection
Book jacket for a book claiming the Scottsboro Boys were guilty published in the 1930s.
Wikimedia Commons
Scottsboro Marker
Andy Lanset
Scottsboro Boy
Andy Lanset Collection
Scottsboro defense fundraising stamp.
MPI/Getty Images
1931: A poster advertising a defence meeting for Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of African-American youths falsely accused of raping two white girls in Alabama.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
Scottsboro, Alabama, May 2, 1931. The mother of Haywood Patterson, Janie Patterson, is 2nd from right; Alan Taub (r) served as a defense attorney. He was interviewed for the above documentary.


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Comments [2]

Danny Devito from It's Always Sunny in Philidelphia

I'm Danny Devito, famous actor, and I'd like to say that this article was a fantastic piece of work.

Oct. 27 2014 11:17 AM
Lord Geoffington of Jeff from Charles

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Jun. 18 2013 06:32 AM

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