(NNPA)—To young African-Americans, the “Scottsboro Boys,” may sound like the name of a country and western band. But to older Blacks, the “Scottsboro Boys” symbolize the most Southern of Southern taboos during the early 1900s: the allegation of an African-American raping a White woman—even if untrue—was certain to end with the accused being imprisoned or, more often, lynched.
A museum opened this month in Scottsboro in hopes of educating the public about one of the most infamous incidents in Alabama’s bloody past. The museum is a small section of an old African-American church in Scottsboro, a sleepy predominantly White city nestled along Highway 72 between Huntsville, Ala., and Chattanooga, Tenn.
The museum is likely to revive interest in events that took place nearly 80 years ago, events that no serious student of Black history, American history or law can ignore.
According to Douglas O. Linder, a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, “No crime in American history—let alone a crime that never occurred—produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two White girls by nine Black teenagers on a Southern Railroad freight run on March 25, 1931.”
It also produced two landmark Supreme Court decisions (Powell v. Alabama and Norris v. Alabama) that established important legal principles that guarantee defendants the right to effective legal representation and prevent people from being excluded from juries because of their race.
In 1931, nine Black youths were charged with raping two White women in a freight car. They were Roy Wright, 12; Eugene Williams, 13; Ozzie Powell, 16; Willie Roberson, 17; Olen Montgomery, 17; Clarence Norris, 19; Haywood Patterson, 18; Charlie Weems, 19 and Andy Wright, 19.
It was not unusual during the Depression for people to hobo to search for scarce jobs. Four of the defendants—Patterson, Williams and the Wright brothers—were seeking work hauling logs along the Missouri River. The other African-Americans were from Georgia and had not met their co-defendants prior to the train trip.
Two White women—Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, a well-known prostitute—were also hobos, returning to Huntsville from a job search in Chattanooga.
Shortly after the train crossed the Alabama line in Jackson County, a fight broke out between some Black and White riders. The incident was incited by a White youth who stepped on Patterson’s hand as he hung on the side of the train. Most of the White hobos were thrown off the train by African-Americans. Once off, the angry Whites told the stationmaster near Stevenson, Ala. about the fight.
The stationmaster called the sheriff of Jackson County, who deputized a group of armed Whites who met the train when it arrived at Paint Rock, the next stop. Questioned by police, Ruby Bates claimed she had been raped by some of the Black teens. A lynch mob quickly formed at the jail and the National Guard was dispatched by the governor to protect the accused.
Twelve days after their arrest, the Black youths went to trial. They were represented by a real estate lawyer and a lawyer who had not practiced criminal law in decades. The teens were tried separately and quickly by all-White juries. The case against the 12-year-old defendant ended in a hung jury. The other eight were sentenced to death.
The Supreme Court twice reversed the convictions. At a second trial, Bates admitted neither of the women had been raped. She said Price had urged her to “frame up a story” to avoid being prosecuted on morals charges.
Eventually, the charges were dropped and the Black men were pardoned.
What happened to the defendants in Scottsboro was no isolated incident.
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was killed near Money, Miss. for allegedly whistling at a White woman.
In her book titled “The Color of Crime,” Professor Karen K. Russell documented nine cases between 1987 and 1997 in which White women lied about being raped by Black men. In one case, she said, a White female claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by three African-American men at gunpoint. However, she later confessed that she had made up the story to cover up for having stayed out all night.
In 1994, Susan Smith murdered her two sons in Union, S.C. after pretending that her car had been hijacked at gunpoint by an armed Black man. On Oct. 23, 1989, Charles Stuart, the manager of an upscale fur store in Boston, killed his pregnant wife and shot himself as part of an insurance scheme. He, too, blamed a Black man and for days, investigators believed him.
Last year, Bonnie Sweeten of suburban Philadelphia claimed she and her 9-year-old daughter were abducted by Black men who forced them into their trunk. She made the whole thing up.
The legacy of the “Scottsboro Boys” still lives. If you are guilty and want to be believed—at least initially—conveniently blame a Black man.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)