Of Race and Rails

Hopping freight cars offered, for many people during the Depression, an opportunity to seek out opportunities and to escape from the monotony of daily living. Throughout the South, the rails provided transportation for both blacks and whites. On March 25, 1931, two dozen, mostly male riders rode the west-bound Southern Railway train from Chattanooga to Memphis. As the train passed through the tip of Alabama, a group of the white hoboes fought with Haywood Patterson, a black youth in his late teens. Patterson was soon assisted by a larger group of friends. The whites were forced from the train. The losing side reported to the local stationmaster that they had been assaulted by a black gang. When the train rolled into Paint Rock, Alabama, a posse assembled and captured nine black youths. They were taken to jail in Scottsboro, Alabama.

Two white mill workers, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, reported that they had been sexually assaulted by the youths. When one of the accused, Clarence Norris, dared to call the girls liars, he was beaten.

Scottsboro anticipated a lynching. The Sheriff, however, faced down the mob and threatened to kill the first man who came through the door of his jail. He then telephoned the governor who mobilized the National Guard to protect the in-custody youths. The nine prisoners were brought to court by 118 heavily armed guardsmen.

The death penalty trial began a mere 12 days after the arrest. Although the trial judge recruited the Alabama bar to assist the defendants, only a single attorney volunteered, a 69-year-old lawyer, often forgetful, who had not tried a case in decades. Ultimately, he was assisted by a Tennessee real estate attorney who did not know Alabama criminal law, was not given time to prepare and was frequently believed to be intoxicated. The trial tactics, consequently, may well be a case study in how not to conduct a criminal trial.

The defendants were tried in groups beginning on April 6th, 1931. The cases proceeded in quick succession. Guilty verdicts against the first two defendants returned while Haywood Patterson’s trial was underway. The white audience’s cheers could be heard in Patterson’s courtroom. By April 9th, eight had been convicted and sentenced to death. A mistrial was declared on one defendant, 12 years of age, when eleven jurors held out for a death sentence even though the prosecution had asked fScottsboro_Boysor life imprisonment.

The only organization ready to take up the cause of the Scottsboro Boys was the American Communist Party. The ACP challenged the case as a “murderous frame-up.” The Alabama Supreme Court, nonetheless, affirmed the conviction. The United States Supreme Court in Powell v. Alabama, however, overturned the guilty verdicts, ruling that the defendants’ right to competent legal counsel had been denied.

The retrial of Haywood Patterson began March 30th, 1933. The ACP hired Samuel Leibowitz, a successful New York criminal defense attorney, to assist the Scottsboro Boys. Leibowitz condemned the local practice of systematically excluding African-Americans as potential jurors. More dramatically, his vigorous defense included calling Ruby Bates, one of the original rape victims. She recanted her earlier testimony and said that none of the black youths had even spoken to her, let alone sexually assaulted her. She and Price had made up the story, she testified, to avoid claims that they had journeyed into Alabama as prostitutes.

On April 8th, 1933 Judge James Horton convened the jury to hear final arguments. During summation, the assistant prosecutor asked the Alabama jury “whether justice in this case is going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York?” The jury answered by convicting Patterson and again sentencing him to death.

Judge Horton, described as looking like “Lincoln without the beard,” had, however, become convinced of the defendant’s innocence. To everyone’s surprise, he vacated the death sentence and granted Patterson a new trial. (Judge Horton who had previously run unopposed, lost the next judicial election.)

Judge William Callahan presided over the next retrial.  Haywood Patterson would later write about Callahan that “[h]e couldn’t get us to the chair fast enough.” The judge’s original instructions to the jury failed to include a form to acquit Patterson. Although the error was corrected, the outcome remained. The jury convicted first Patterson and then Clarence Norris of rape.

The U.S. Supreme Court again reversed, holding in Alabama v. Norris, the Alabama system of jury selection to be unconstitutional.

Haywood Patterson prepared for his fourth trial. He was again convicted. After the trial, one of the other Scottsboro Boys, Ozie Powell, attempted to escape while being carted back to prison. Powell was shot in the head and suffered permanent brain damage.

Three more defendants were tried in rapid succession. Then, the prosecutor announced that he was dropping the charges against four defendants including the defendant who was 12 at the time of the offense. The final defendant, Ozzie Powell, pled to striking a deputy rather than rape.

The case remained a cause célèbe for the growing civil rights movement. Throughout the 1940’s, the Scottsboro Boys paroled and promptly fled Alabama. In 1948, Haywood Patterson escaped from prison. Although he was subsequently arrested in Michigan, the governor refused Alabama’s extradition request. On November 22, 2013, Alabama posthumously pardoned Haywood Patterson and the others.

It is easy to condemn Alabama or the South for this mockery of justice. It is important, however, to remember those courageous citizens who did the right thing, chief among them, Judge James Horton. He lived his credo, ‘let justice be done though the heavens may fall’. He sacrificed his career by setting aside Patterson’s conviction.

220px-To_Kill_a_MockingbirdHarper Lee turned five years old and lived in Monroeville, Alabama as the Scottsboro Boys cases claimed headlines. To Kill a Mockingbird, her story of Tom Robinson’s trial for the rape of the Mayella Ewell and his defense by Atticus Finch, may well have its roots in Haywood Patterson, Victoria Price and Samuel Leibowitz. The parallels are easily identifiable. She may, however, have found inspiration in her lawyer father’s stories of his criminal defense work. Seven years before her birth, A.C. Lee defended a pair of black men accused of murder. The men were executed and Lee, distraught, never took another criminal case.

For their role in shaping jurisprudence, race relations and literature, the Scottsboro Boys, tried this week in two different years are the Trials of the Month.


Mark Thielman


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