On March 25, 1931, local authorities in Paint Rock, AL arrested nine black youths on a freight train after receiving word about a fight between blacks and whites on the train. They discovered two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, dressed in men’s overalls on the same train and subsequently charged the nine young men with rape.
The doctor who examined the girls found proof that they had been having sexual intercourse but no reason to conclude that they had been roughly handled, except for a small bruise on one of them which might well have been caused by riding on gravel. This was not Victoria Price’s version of the story: “There were six to me and three to her….It took three of them to hold me,” she recalled under oath. “One was holding my legs and the other had a knife to my throat while the other one ravished me.”
Four of the “Scottsboro Boys,” Roy and Andy Wright, Eugene Williams, and Heywood Patterson, had grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the Wrights were the sons of Ada Wright, a widow and a domestic servant in Chattanooga. Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Charlie Weems, and Willie Roberson came from different towns in Georgia and encountered the others for the first time on the train. Olen Montgomery was completely blind in one eye and could barely see out of the other; Willie Roberson suffered from untreated syphilis and could hardly walk.
Presiding judge Alfred E. Hawkins assigned all seven members of the Scottsboro bar to defend the young men, but all of them found excuses not to involve themselves except for seventy-year-old Milo C. Moody.
In Chattanooga, sixty miles away, members of the local Interdenominational Colored Ministers’ Alliance raised funds to retain Stephen R. Roddy, a white lawyer from Chattanooga. “I was scared before, but it wasn’t nothing to how I felt now,” said defendant Norris as the trials got under way. “I knew if a white woman accused a black man of rape, he was as good as dead.”
On April 9, 1931, after four separate trials conducted over a four-day period before four different all-white juries in the mountain town of Scottsboro, eight of the defendants were found guilty as charged.
Judge Hawkins promptly sentenced them to death. The case of the ninth defendant-thirteen-year-old Roy Wright-ended in a mistrial after a majority of the jury refused to accept the prosecution’s recommendation that he be spared the death penalty because of his extreme youth.
“I was sitting in a chair and one of those girls was testifying,” Wright was quoted as saying in a March 10, 1933 New York Times article. “One of the deputy sheriffs leaned over to me and asked if I was going to turn state’s evidence, and I said no, because I didn’t know anything about this case.
“Then the trial stopped awhile and the deputy sheriff beckoned to me to come out into another room– the room back of the place where the judge was sitting– and I went. They whipped me and it seemed like they were going to kill me. All the time they kept saying, “Now will you tell?” and finally it seemed to me like I couldn’t stand it no more and I said yes.”
Soon after the guilty verdicts, the NAACP and the International Labor Defense came to the defense of the “Scottsboro Boys,” contending the trials were unconstitutional. Three more rounds of trials ensued. Ultimately, charges against four of the defendants were dropped, but by that time they had spent over 6 years in prison on death row without trial.
Alabama’s Governor Graves had planned to pardon all of the defendants before he left office in 1938. However, during the customary pre-pardon interview, Graves was angered by the men’s hostility towards him and refusal to admit their guilt, so he did not issue pardons.
PBS April 2, 2001: “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/)