Today is March 25th, 2011. On that same date in 1931, nine black youths were arrested in Plain Rock, Alabama for getting into a rock throwing fight with white youths while hoboing on a train. Hitching a ride on a freight train was a common thing in the Depression of the 1930s. All but one of the white youths was thrown off the train during the fight, which erupted after one of the white boys stepped on the hand of one of the black boys who was hanging from a boxcar.
Some of the white youths went to the stationmaster in Stevenson to report the incident, and it was wired ahead so a posse was waiting for the train when it arrived in Plain Rock. Two white woman were on the train and claimed they had been gang-raped by a group of 12 of the black youths with pistols and knives. They later identified six of them at the police station in Scottsboro, Alabama, where all nine of the boys had been taken. They charged all nine with rape. Thus began the most notorious injustice in the legal history of the United States: “The Scottsboro Boys.”
The boys went to trial in 12 days after the Governor of Alabama had to call in the National Guard to protect the defendants from a lynching. Eight of the nine “Scottsboro Boys” were convicted by an all white jury, and sentenced to death, in one day. The ninth was only twelve years old, so they let him go. The convictions were affirmed 6-1 in the Alabama Supreme Court, on seven of the eight defendants. They decided one of the defendants, a 13-year-old, shouldn’t have been tried as an adult.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision on this very same date, March 25th, 1932. “Powell v Alabama.” The Supreme Court’s decision found that the defendants were not given a fair trial under the 14th Amendment which protects the right of due process. Part of that protection is the right to competent legal counsel, claiming that had been denied that by Alabama, and ordered a new trial.
So Alabama retried them and they were again found guilty. Again reversed on appeal. This travesty went on for years for a crime that was never committed. One of the rape victims, Ruby Bates, later recanted her story during the second Powell trial. And both Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, the alleged victims, were prostitutes trying to avoid a morals charge for crossing state lines. By 1946 all the “Scottsboro Boys” had been released. On January 23, 1989, the last of the “Scottsboro Boys” was dead.
The case, or should I say cases, literally started the Civil Rights Movement in this country. You read these case files and absolutely can’t believe that this could even happen here, yet it did.
I highly recommend the 2007 movie made about this case, called “Heavens Fall,” starring Timothy Hutton. He plays Liebowitz, the New York attorney that fought untiringly for their freedom. And its just a plain good true story.