Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

Were the convictions inevitable ?
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In March of 1931, in poverty ridden Alabama, nine black boys were accused of raping and assaulting two white women. All of the boys were sentenced to death 12 days after they were accused with “a politically explosive charge in the South” (Linder). The case gained an international following after the Communist Party declared it a “murderous frame-up” (Linder). International attention brought light to the various procedural errors in the case such as incompetent counsel and lack of an impartial jury. The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the convictions because of the procedural errors, however, when the boys were retried on several different occasions, the jurors unanimously found them guilty. The Scottsboro case further exposed America as an extremely racist country, in which black lives were disposable. The socio-economic conditions of the 1930’s and sectional strife, made the guilty verdicts of the boys inevitable.

During the first trial, the Scottsboro Boys were represented by incompetent lawyers, Stephen Roddy and Milo Moody. Due to the boys’ race and financial situation, they could not find or afford a capable lawyer in the state of Alabama to defend them. Consequently, they had to settle for Roddy, a real estate attorney and Moody, a “forgetful seventy-year-old local attorney who hadn't tried a case in years” (Linder). The boys had 20 minutes to conference with the attorneys, who encouraged them to plead guilty. In addition, the defense did not question the women, Ruby Bates (17) and Victoria Price (21), about the contradictions in their testimonies. Guilty verdicts and death sentences were announced for eight of the boys. There was a mistrial in the case of Roy Wright, the youngest of the boys, because the prosecution requested a life sentence, however, an all-white jury sentenced him to death. The boys’ 14th amendment rights to counsel and equal protection of the law, were severely infringed upon. The boys, who were extremely poor, could not afford proper counsel to prove their innocence. The trial court did not provide them with counsel, either. Moreover, the Scottsboro boys were also convicted and sentenced by all-white, racist, male jurors who disregarded logical reasoning and convicted the boys due to their race. The guilty verdict of this first trial was inevitable because there was no proper defense and the exclusion of black people on the jury, coupled with the racial bias of jury members, created an atmosphere in which the boys could be easily convicted.

The inevitability of the verdict is best evidenced by Powell v Alabama (1932), in which the Supreme Court of the united states reverses the convictions on the grounds that the Scottsboro boys were denied proper due process of law. The justices believed that the trial was unfair because “(1) they [the Scottsboro boys] were not given a fair impartial and deliberate trail; (2) they were denied the right of counsel; and (3) they were tried before juries from which qualified members of their own race were systematically excluded” (Powell v Alabama). Due to the fact that racism was socially acceptable at the time, especially in Alabama, the Supreme Court avoided creating controversy by neglecting to expand on the first and third points. In an attempt to downplay rising racial tensions in Alabama, the Court only focuses on the denial of proper counsel. The Court explicitly states that because of the “illiteracy” of the boys, it was the duty of the trial court to provide proper counsel to ensure a fair trial. If an illiterate individual is denied proper counsel, sentenced to death and executed, it would be “a gross violation of the guarantee of due process of law.” The blatant denial of the boys’ right to competent counsel, by the trial court, resulted in a guilty verdict because there was no feasible way to prove the boys’ innocence.

Displeased with the reversal of convictions Alabama decides to retry the nine black boys, this time adhering to the legal precedent set in Powell v Alabama in hopes of putting the boys to death. For the second trial, The Communist Party succeeds in becoming the Scottsboro boys’ new representatives. The Communist employ a famous New York lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, to be the lead defense attorney for the Scottsboro case. In Alabama, and the rest of the south, the Communist, and Leibowitz, were not a respected people because their fundamental values differed from those held in the south. Communist believed that all groups of people are equal whereas, in the south, the common belief was that blacks were inferior to whites. Sectionalism fueled the southerners to convict the boys even more because any motion made by the defense was seen as an attack on southern “social order and way of life” (Linder). This is best seen when Leibowitz makes a motion to quash the indictment, on the grounds that black people in Alabama were excluded from jury rolls. To southern observers, Leibowitz’s motion was simply “unforgivable” and his motion was denied. Although Leibowitz points out the many fallacies within Price’s testimonials, deconstructs the validity of the prosecution’s only witness and has Bates testify for the defense, the Scottsboro boys are still found guilty and are again sentenced to death. This guilty verdict was also inevitable because the boys’ right to equal protection was violated again by the exclusion of black people from participating on jury rolls. The racial discrimination against black people in Morgan County, the place where the trial was being held, resulted in all white, racist juries. As expected, a jury of bigots and racist individuals returned a biased and racially charged verdict.

The Supreme Court of the united states highlights the racial discrimination that was a part of the second set of trials in ‘Norris v Alabama (1935).’ The exclusion of qualified black individuals on juries for more than a generation “established the discrimination which the constitution forbids.” This violates the boys’ right to equal protection, as stated in Powell v Alabama, because they are more likely to be convicted by an all white jury than a racially diverse jury. This case reverses the convictions and integrates juries.

Although the Scottsboro cases were draining Alabama financially, the state decided retry the boys again. This time, there was a compromise. Charges against four of the boys would be dropped and none would receive the death penalty. However, the five remaining boys received excessive sentences. With competent counsel and an integrated jury, the boys are still found undeniably guilty for a crime that never took place. This final conviction for majority of the Scottsboro boys was inevitable because the boys were black. The racist atmosphere that was so prominent in Alabama, made it impossible for any of the boys to be seen as innocent. The guilty verdict was simply a product of the racial bias that was exacerbated by the media. The media was used as a tool to incriminate the boys solely due to their race. One headline emphasizes on the race of the boys stating, “All Negroes Positively Identified ... Nine Black Fiends Committed Revolting Crime” (Linder). It was common belief that black men wanted to rape white women, therefore, it was easy for the media to use the race of the boys to incriminate them in the public eye. However, had the boys been white, there would have been no guilty verdict. The jury would have adhered to social expectations and normalities. This means that in order to protect white-male supremacy in the south, white boys would've be found innocent of all charges.

The Scottsboro case is extremely significant in American history because it clearly demonstrates many of the injustices that African American people had to face within the legal. Despite amending the Constitution with the 14th amendment, black people were still openly discriminated against in all parts of American society. The many trials and convictions of the nine Scottsboro boys clearly show that the American judicial system does not protect black people. The hesitance of the Supreme Court to take a stance on integrated juries and equal protection in Powell v Alabama, demonstrates that black lives were not important in America. The Scottsboro Case represents America in its truest form, a racist country fueled on white supremacy and ignorance. The case is horrifyingly similar to many incidents that continue to take place today. Black people are commonly perceived to be violent and dangerous just because the color of their skin. Due to this black people are continuously and unfairly targeted by law enforcement, just like they were decades ago during the Scottsboro trials.


Works Cited

  • Linder, Douglas O. "The Trials of The Scottsboro Boys." The Trials of The Scottsboro Boys. N.p., 1999. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
  • Norris v Alabama (1935). Supreme Court of the United States. Feb.-Apr. 1935. Print.
  • Powell v Alabama (1932). Supreme Court of the United States. Oct.-Nov. 1932. Print.


Cover Image Credit: Haiku Deck

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You never think it will happen to you until it does.

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My heart stopped. For me, Aurora, Illinois is home. I was born there, I grew up around the area and I attended high school there. My siblings go to school close by and my boyfriend works for a neighboring fire department.

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