You Should Know

The Scottsboro Boys

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The case of the Scottsboro Boys, which lasted more than 80 years, helped to spur the Civil Rights Movement. The perseverance of the Scottsboro Boys and the attorneys and community leaders who supported their case helped to inspire several prominent activists and organizers. To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by white author Harper Lee, is also loosely based on this case.

On March 25, 1931, nine African American teenagers were accused of raping two white women aboard a Southern Railroad freight train in northern Alabama. Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charley Weems and Roy Wright were searching for work when a racially-charged fight broke out between passengers. The fight is said to have started when a young white man stepped on the hand of one of the Scottsboro Boys. The young white men who were fighting were forced to exit the train. Enraged, they conjured a story of how the black men were at fault for the incident. By the time the train reached Paint Rock, Alabama, the Scottsboro Boys were met with an angry mob and charged with assault. Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, two white women who were also riding the freight train, faced charges of vagrancy and illegal sexual activity. In order to avoid these charges, they falsely accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape.

The original cases were tried in Scottsboro, Alabama. Only four of the young African American men knew each other prior to the incident on the freight train, but as the trials drew increasing regional and national attention they became known as the Scottsboro Boys. On April 9, 1931, eight of the nine young men were convicted and sentenced to death. The judge granted Roy Wright, the youngest of the group, a mistrial because of age—despite the recommendation of the all-white jury. After this initial verdict, protests emerged in the north, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the convictions in 1932, in Powell v. State of Alabama. The Supreme Court demanded a retrial on the grounds that the young men did not have adequate legal representation. A series of retrials and reconvictions followed and the Scottsboro Boys collectively served more than 100 years in prison. Subsequently, the national conversation and protests of unfair and unequal court proceedings led to two additional groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions in 1935 on jury diversification: Patterson v. State of Alabama and Norris v. State of Alabama.