Why Did I Never Learn About the Scottsboro Boys?

Scottsboro Boys With Attorney/Unknown /Flickr/Public Domain

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The American legal system and Black people have had a troubled relationship ever since … well, forever. One of the gravest “miscarriages of justice” occurred in 1931 in Alabama with the “Scottsboro Boys.”

As a group of young Blacks and whites looking for work were traveling on a train through Tennessee, a fight erupted when a group of white boys asserted that it was a whites-only train and insisted that the Black boys be thrown off.

The fight ended in a stalemate, but at the Paint Rock, AL stop the white boys went to the local authorities and claimed to have been jumped resulting in the arrest of 9 Black males to be charged with assault.

During the arrest, the officers searched the train and also found two white women hiding who accused the Black males of raping them.

In reality, the women had sexual relations with some of the white men on the train and feared persecution for their sexual activity. Thus, they agreed to testify against the Black youths.

The charges were immediately changed to rape, which warranted the death penalty in Alabama.

The trial was held in a nearby town called Scottsboro, which is how the 9 young men got the name “Scottsboro Boys.”

Nothing about the trial was fair. The judge, jury, and audience were all-white.

Additionally, the boys were not provided adequate legal counsel. In fact, the lawyer appointed to represent them was also representing the two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price.

Ultimately, 8 of the 9 boys were sentenced to death by hanging.

The American Communist Party (CP) caught wind of the unfair proceedings and requested for the boys’ parents to let them defend them and take the case to the Supreme Court.

While the NAACP was hesitant to take part in anything dealing with the rape of a white woman, they eventually succumbed, joining forces with the CP to form the Scottsboro Defense Committee.

After three trials and two Supreme court cases, the young men were finally exonerated from the alleged crimes in 1937 but were not immediately released from prison.

Prior to the court proceedings, Ruby Bates came forward in a handwritten statement and admitted that she had fabricated the rape story.

In her own words,“ I was drunk at the time and did not know what i was doing. I know it was wrong to let those Negroes die on account of me.  I hope you will believe me.  I was jazed but those white boys jazed me.  I wish those Negores are not burnt on account of me. It is these white boys’ fault.”

While there has been a museum dedicated to the Scottsboro Boys, a musical made in their honor, and several notable literature and film references to their story, the reality remains that 9 Black men had their lives ruined by false accusations of frightened whites and a biased legal system that was against them from the start.

This is not just history, it is still going on today. Recently, three black males were falsely accused of kidnapping and raping a white girl in Texas. She later admitted to making up the entire story.

Although the “Scottsboro Boys” Trials did result in changes to legislation about the automatic death penalty for Blacks who rape white women, the American judicial system clearly has long way to go.

If you are interested in learning more about the events directly from two of the men involved, check out Scottsboro Boy and The Last of the Scottsboro Boys.

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