The Story of the Scottsboro Trials: The court case that shaped the Civil Rights Movement
The Martin Luther King “I have a Dream” speech, Rosa Parks, and the ground breaking decision from Brown v. Board of Education were the foundation that helped construct the civil rights movement. It is well known that the Civil Rights movement began in the mid to late 1950’s well into the 1980’s. Whether it was African Americans fighting for the end of segregation to gender equality movement to the Chicano Movement, the foundation of these struggles were the necessity to become equal. These groups sought to change the national staple that label these groups as inferior, an issue that plagued the lower class for decades. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, Alabama was at the center of the Jim Crow Law, where a train ride greatly altered the lives of nine African Americans boys. This may quite have been the beginning of the Civil Rights movement for many reasons.
Throughout the early 1900’s it was common in the South that once an accusation was made against an African American, regardless of its legitimacy, the law proclaimed that suspect guilty until proven innocent. This issue was a common practice among lawyers, judges and prosecutors, who would deny the liberty and fair trial of African Americans. The Scottsboro trail was no exception. These boys were being prosecuted after a rumble ensued on a freight train traveling throughout Alabama. The nine Scottsboro boys left a group of white kids stranded after they were kicked out the train following the fight. Thus leaving two white women on the train with the remaining nine black boys. After word got out about the fight and that two white women were left on the train, a group of armed civilians and officers were waiting in Paint Rock, Alabama, the stop that altered the lives of these men forever. After these nine men were arrested, the two women, Victoria Gates and Ruby Price, were taken into custody and asked if they were assaulted. It was reported that the police officer that questioned the woman place this misleading notion that these black boys raped these woman. In an attempt to harm these boys, much greater than an assault against the white gang, the public wanted these boys to suffer by charging each with rape of the two white women.
The court case, which was widely controversial for its lack of evidence and severe illustration of racism, received national attention from several radical legal-action organizations such as the NAACP and the International labor defense. These organizations wanted to broadcast to a national level the inequities in the Alabama justice system. As the court cases went to trial the initial verdict rendered that all nine suspect were guilty in the rape of Victoria Price and Ruby Gates. In 1932, the International labor defense sought to challenge the initial verdict on the grounds that these men were discriminated against, grounds for an immediate re-trial. The case was appealed up to the Alabama Supreme court, in which the decision was upheld. It was not until the landmark supreme court ruling of Powell v. Alabama stated that it is deemed unconstitutional to deny the right to counseling from the time of their arraignment up to the time of the trial. This was the second landmark decision that allowed African Americans the right to receive equality in the justice system. This may well in fact have been the start of the civil rights movement.
Following the decision from Powell v. Alabama, another major precedent was set in Patterson v. Alabama where an African American is denied his due process constitutional right if the jury pool excludes African Americans. These two major precedents laid the foundation to allow African Americans the opportunity to fight for equality. This was during an era where the United States justice system have finally shun the light on developing a system based on equality. The actions from this case was ahead of its time, the precedents were the only staple in allowing African Americans to fight back. Society was too fearful to combat these issues because this was still during the time of lynching, Jim Crowe and post-reconstruction.
These court decisions were made during the time of the great depression, continuous culture battle between the north and the south, and legal violence within the justice system. Although there weren’t any major upheaval among the black community with riots and protest, the subject of the case allowed African Americans to seek justice. This court case provided an alternative to persecution. It allowed African Americans to help develop the idea that justice may finally be available to them. This case demonstrated that in order to seek some form of liberation from a deeply rooted racial society one must fight. The fight that was shown in this court case was a legal battle that the nine Scottsboro and their lawyers would never give up, that in order for an issue to finally change one must fight for it. The state of Alabama was against the nine boys whether it was the legal system or the white community. The only thing that those nine innocent children had were the fight and determination to stop these reckless acts of social injustice.
These men filed for their freedom. Although there were not completely successful, those nine African American boys opened the door to the civil rights movement. It took sacrificing their freedom and lives to allow the African American community to change the ideology of what it meant to be free. It was clear that nothing was going to be given to them; they had to take matters into their own hand. Showcasing that freedom and peace will only be guaranteed if you fight for it.
Eighty years later …
Exonerating the Scottsboro Nine
Decades too late, the Alabama Legislature is moving to grant posthumous pardons to the Scottsboro Boys — the nine black teenagers arrested as freight train hoboes in 1931 and convicted by all-white juries of raping two white women.
The trials were feverish displays of American racism and injustice that stirred a lynch mob outside the Scottsboro jail. The travesty drew worldwide attention and eventually resulted in landmark Supreme Court rulings on the right to adequate counsel and prohibiting the exclusion of black people from juries. The case consumed the lives of the nine men, even after the rape accusation was recanted by one of the women and the testimony of other witnesses fell apart in a series of retrials and appeals. All but one defendant were sentenced to death, and though none was executed, all served time.
The trials epitomized the South’s Jim Crow culture and are viewed by historians as a major spark for the modern civil rights era. Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, in a populist gambit for national attention, made a show of pardoning one of the Scottsboro nine in 1976. But the fate of the others was left to drift from sight across the years, with the last of the group dying in 1989.
This week, the State Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan bill that would change state law to allow the posthumous pardons. A second measure exonerates the nine as “victims of a series of gross injustice.” Final enactment is expected. This will not in any way deliver full justice to those men and their families. But it will confirm what happened in Scottsboro eight decades ago, when street mobs cheered the rapid-fire guilty verdicts. And the pardons will put a spotlight on the town’s newest tourist attraction, the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.