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Scottsboro Case

John Simkin

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On 25th March, 1931, Victoria Price (19) and Ruby Bates (17) claimed they were gang-raped by 12 black men on a Memphis bound train. Nine black youths on the train were arrested and charged with the crime. Twelve days later the trial of Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems, Clarence Norris, Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams and Willie Roberson took place at Scottsboro, Alabama. Their defence attorney was an alcoholic, who was drunk throughout the trial. The prosecutor on the other hand, told the jury, "Guilty or not, let's get rid of these niggers". After three days all nine men were found guilty: eight, including two aged 14, were sentenced to death and the youngest man, who was only thirteen, was given life imprisonment.

Two famous writers, Theodore Dreiser and Lincoln Steffens, publicized the case by writing articles on how the men had been falsely convicted. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the American Communist Party both became involved in the campaign and Clarence Darrow, America's leading criminal lawyer, took up the case. In November, 1932, the United States Supreme Court ordered a second trial on the grounds that the men had been inadequately defended in court.

Although Ruby Bates testified at the second trial that the rape story had been invented by Victoria Price and the crime had not taken place, the men were once again found guilty. A third trial ended with the same result but a fourth in January, 1936, resulted in four of the men being acquitted. Four more were released in the 1940s but the last prisoner, Andy Wright, had to wait until 9th June, 1950, before achieving his freedom. This was nineteen years and two months after his arrest in Alabama.

The nine men were finally pardoned in October, 1976. Only one of the men, Clarence Norris, who had spent 15 years in prison for the crime, was still alive. He commented when he heard the news: "I only wish the other eight boys could be here today. Their lives were ruined by this thing, too." In April 1977 the Alabama House Judiciary Committee rejected a proposal to pay Norris $10,000 in compensation for his time spent in prison.


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