Three of the last Scottsboro Boys, African American youths falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931, were granted posthumous pardons by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday.
“The long overdue pardon of the African American young men unjustly charged with rape in Alabama decades ago comes too late to provide any comfort to them, but at least will officially clear their names,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “We must recognize this as an opportunity to demonstrate the corrosive, unjust associations between criminality and race prevalent in the early 20th century and sadly, too much with us today.”
For years the incident involving nine Black youths traveling on a train from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Scottsboro, Alabama and looking for work encountered a gang of white youths on the train. “The trouble began when three or four white boys crossed over the oil tanker that four of us colored fellows from Chattanooga were in,” wrote Haywood Patterson in his book “Scottsboro Boy,” co-authored with Earl Conrad.
“One of the white boys, he stepped on my hand and liked to have knocked me off the train,” Patterson continued. “I didn’t say anything then, but the same guy, he brushed by me again and liked to have pushed me off the car. I caught hold of the side of the tanker to keep from falling off.”
After a series of epithets from the white boys, a melee ensued, and the Black boys got the best of the white boys, tossing them from the train. Angered by the defeat, they hurried to the next station, reported the altercation and alerted the sheriff at Scottsboro.
Unbeknownst to the Black boys there were two white girls, dressed like boys, hoboing on the train. When the train pulled into the station the white girls, afraid of being arrested for hopping the train, claimed they had been raped.
All of them—Patterson, Roy Wright and his brother, Andy, Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, and Ozie Powell—were arrested and taken to jail.
Thus began their long ordeal, making them a cause celebre for years and commanding the attention of the NAACP and the International Labor Defense.
“Starting with the arrest of nine black men and boys on fabricated and completely contradictory allegations of the rape of two white women,” Parker wrote, “the case proceeded through a serious of rushed and unfair trials. The defendants were represented by counsel wholly unfamiliar with criminal defense work and unable to conduct even the most basic investigations. The jury deciding the case completely excluded African Americans and their deliberations were conducted under the very real threat of the lynching of the defendants.
“Although the alleged victims [Ruby Bates and Victoria Price] ultimately recanted their stories and admitted that their allegations of rape were complete fabrications,” Parker added, “all of the men were convicted and all but one [13-year-old Roy Wright] sentenced to death. During the case, seemingly every ugly stereotype appeared, from the depiction of the criminally rapacious black male intent on ravishing white women to the attacks on the counsel who ultimately took on the case on remand as meddling communistic Jewish lawyers from New York.”
In the succeeding years, the case was tried three times and eventually charges were dropped for four of the defendants. All but two of them served prison sentences. One was shot in prison by a guard. Two escaped, were charged with crimes, and were returned to prison.
Patterson escaped from prison in 1948 and two years later wrote his book before being snared again by the law. The governor of Michigan, however, refused to have him extradited to Alabama. Later, during a bar fight, he stabbed a man and was convicted of manslaughter. He died of cancer while serving a second sentence in 1952.
In 1946, Clarence Norris, the oldest of the defendants and the only one sentenced to death, and upon being paroled, he went into hiding. Governor George Wallace pardoned him in 1976 and he authored an autobiography in 1979. He died in 1989, the last survivor of the Scottsboro Boys.