Scottsboro Boys

Issue of Racism in the South and in Curriculum

When do you decide that racism is not just a collection of non-isolated isolated incidents? When instead does it become a whole system set up for the benefit of a particular segment of society? In the South, it’s extraordinarily easy to blame people and their ignorance for the way things used to be. However, when you see those “feelings” and “thoughts” carried over into the legal system of America; that is when it becomes something much bigger than ignorance. That is when it becomes discrimination and racism that has a stamp of approval from the people that are supposed to be protecting the minority.

Racism and examples of it are often not covered in the traditional history course. It is sometimes referenced as something “in the past” and not connected to current times. Examples of racism are rampant throughout the first half of 20th century United States history, but are usually left out. Racism is taught, as something that began in the United States during colonial times, was rampant during the Civil War, and then gradually decreased until the 1960’s. Textbook writers often leave out that it was rampant throughout US history and still continues to be an issue today. The first time civil rights are addressed it typically with a study of the 1960’s. The study is usually focused on only the South during the times of Martin Luther King, and that the Civil Rights movement must have died with his assassination. Students are not usually taught about struggles for equality during the earlier period of the 1900’s.

The most often cited reason for excluding racism from the United States history curriculum is to avoid controversy. Controversial issues are often avoided in history classrooms for fear of what conversations might arise. This includes the topic of institutional and systematic racism.



Judge Lynch” refers to the commonplace practice in which a lynching mob served as the Judge, Jury, and Executioner of prosecuted individuals, primarily African Americans.  Lynching being illegal and outside of the justice system makes it completely incompatible with the way men are supposed to be tried in America, however this practice was widely used throughout the country and especially in the South. In fact, between 1880-1920, not a single state in America had a lynching committed on its soil. Lynching is by definition ‘illegal hanging’, however in the South during the 1930s, it involves much more than a simple noose in a tree. It is often coupled with mutilation of the victim while they alive, being set on fire while alive, and sometimes even drug while alive before being allowed to die.

It is important to note that the most common charges that lead to a lynching happened to be murder and rape.. However, it is important to note that no white man got lynched for raping a black woman but many black men got lynched for raping white women, or at least that was the charge. Prominent writers of the time, such as Ida B. Wells, often challenged the understanding that lynching was justified by a need to “promote the virtue of white women”. The defense of the white Southern women would become a very traditional refrain in the South, and one that would lead to numerous lynchings court cases, and the death of many innocent individuals at the hand of the legal system. Many attempts were made over the years to create a Federal Anti-Lynching Law, but none of these attempts succeeded.

The Scottsboro story does not end with mob violence, like so many contemporary instances of the time. However, the Scottsboro case is centered on the defense of Southern white women against the “abuse” of black men. When Victoria Price and Ruby Bates cried rape on that fateful day in Paint Rock, Alabama they set into motion the only court case with the distinct honor of being overturned by the Supreme Court twice.

However, what does the evidence point to, and what would you do? Were the boys given a fair trial? Why or why not? Those are the questions you will be investigating today.


The Case

The Scottsboro case is a particularly important in understanding the systematic structure of racism in our country.  In 1931, nine African American boys were accused of gang-raping two white girls on a train bound to Chattanooga from Memphis (train diagram). The case was tried solely on the basis of the testimony of the two white girls.

The story begins with Haywood Paterson, whose hand was stepped on by an unidentified white boy. Having friends on the train, he and at least eight other black men attacked at least half a dozen white boys in a rock-throwing fight. The Black boys, having won the fight, threw all but one white boy off the train. One of the White boys, Orville Gilley, was saved from the same fate because by that time the train was cutting through the woods at a life-threatening speed and the Black boys decided not to force him from the train.

The white boys reported the incident to police at the next town, Paint Rock, Alabama, were called to arrest the boys. With the arrest of the nine boys that could be found, soon to be labeled as the “Scottsboro Nine”, two young white women were questioned. One claimed rape by twelve black boys with guns, and identified six of the nine as her attackers, and three of the boys as raping the other girl. Within a week, the nine boys were being tried in groups of two or three, and in the end eight were found guilty and sentenced to death. The Judge overseeing these cases was Judge Hawkins. The remaining boy, Roy Wright, was sentenced to life in prison, despite the jury wanting to see him hang. A series of appeals then proceeded.

The anticipated hero the NAACP, proved to be no hero, and did not come to the aid of the ‘Nine.’ NAACP didn’t want to sully their reputation by involving themselves in a rape case. It was the American Communist Party who stepped in to save the boys from death by the State. The Communists, through the International Legal Defense (ILD), were appointed to defend the boys in their new trials. The NAACP, in a late attempt, tried to send famous attorney Clarence Darrow to defend the boys. However, the boys ended up placing their lives in the hands of the Communists, who were and still are in many instances as despised as much as a gang of black rapists of white women. The trials would last for years between appeals and actual trials.

Eventually, seven of the nine boys were held in jail for more then six years without a trial until 1937. Patterson, the first of the boys, was sentenced to 75 years in prison. Ozie Powell was shot in the head while “attempting to escape” from the police, but lived to tell the tale. Clarence Norris was sentenced to death. Andy Wright was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Charlie Weems was sentenced to 75 years in prison. The rape charges were dropped against Powell, as long as he admitted to assaulting a deputy prior to his being shot. Willie Roberson and Olen Montgomery’s charges were dropped as the prosecution had been “convinced of their innocence”, and rape charges were dropped against Eugene Williams and Roy Wright. Williams and Wright, being 13 and 12 years old respectively at the time, had already served their time awaiting trial.

Weems was eventually patrolled in 1943, having spent twelve years of his life in prison for a crime he probably did not commit. Powell and Norris were released in 1946 having spent fifteen years in prison, and Andy Wright in 1950 having spent 18 years [he was on parole for a year but was returned for a violation] of his life in prison. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948, totaling seventeen years in prison, and wrote a book about his experiences while a fugitive. In total, the boys spent 77 years in prison for crimes that were later proved by the women who accused them to be false. Bates would later confess to lying about the whole thing, while Price went to her graving saying it happened.