By Jared Bellot

March 25, 1931.
 A 44-car Alabama Great Southern youth bumming a ride in the hopes of finding a better financial future. As the train winds its way up a hill, there is an altercation between a small group of black and white boys resulting in the ejection of the white boys from the train. Word begins to travel that a group of aggressive black boys are terrorizing the white passengers, and ultimately reaches the authorities in Paint Rock, the next major stop on the line. As the train pulls into town, a local militia has already gathered ready to intervene and serve up mob justice.

Nine black boys, most of them strangers, are pulled off of the train and arrested for assault and attempted murder. Eugene Williams, Roy and Andy Wright, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Ozie Powell, Charles Weems and Haywood Paterson, who range in age from 13 to 19, are bound together with rope, placed on the back of a flatbed truck, and driven to Scottsboro’s small, two-story jail. As the boys are dragged away, local authorities discover two white girls from Huntsville, Alabama, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, who had also stowed away on the train in search of employment and were, in part, supporting themselves through sex work. Price and Bates, both of whom had previous run-ins with the law, were afraid of how they might be charged and so, in the interest of self-preservation, lied, claiming that 12 black men had assaulted them with knives and a pistol, and taken turns raping them. Price and Bates alleged that three of the assailants had gotten away, but that the nine others were none other than the boys pulled from the train just moments earlier. So began the trials of the Scottsboro Boys.

Despite evidence that exonerated the nine boys, and even a retraction of testimony by Ruby Bates, the state of Alabama committed to pursue the case, and all-white juries delivered guilty verdicts for all nine of the boys. The case was appealed and retried in Alabama, and was ultimately heard twice before the United States Supreme Court to no avail, the nine boys would spend the majority of the remainder of their lives in prison, and, even post release, struggled to adapt to life after over a decade in the Alabama prison system. Simply put, the Scottsboro Boys trials were a devastating tragedy. As a political and social movement and a cultural symbol, however, the Scottsboro case played an immeasurable part in undermining the structures of white supremacy in Alabama, the South, and throughout the nation. The Scottsboro Boys trial became synonymous with the racial injustices of the Jim Crow South and, in the process, would serve as a direct precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.



The Minstrel March: The History of Minstrelsy and Blackface 

By Fatima Sowe

The beginnings of Minstrel performance in the United States is often traced back to Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white actor from New York who developed his first black stage character named Jim Crow in 1820. Rice would tour his show “Jump Jim Crow” to great financial success and critical acclaim. As the genre caught on, Minstrel companies formed and the genre evolved. One of the first changes was that Rice’s solo performance format was replaced by larger Minstrel ensembles and companies. The music changed as well – Stephen Foster is credited with modernizing the music, he wrote family safe lyrics and mined contemporary music arrangements for inspiration. He contributed songs like “ Oh! Susanna” and “The Camptown Races.” These early Minstrel shows had populist beginnings marked by a nostalgic wistfulness of a rural utopia combined with a harsh criticism of big government. After the Civil War, the musical arrangements shifted with the popular emergence of the black religious spiritual called the jubilee. With the rise of the Vaudville song and dance performance style, the popularity of the white minstrel company genre started to decline. In 1869, an African American piano player named Ernest Hogan dubbed a new genre called “Ragtime” as a part of his show “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” This show marked a shift in which African Americans, primarily in the North, began to reclaim the minstrel show as their own. Though they still donned blackface, actors in these companies argued that they were able to humanize their characters through authentic portrayals.



Early Minstrel shows were performed in a carnivalesque style in blackface makeup (either a layer of burnt cork on a layer of coca butter or black grease paint). In the early years of minstrel performance, overly exaggerated red lips were painted around performers mouths. In later years the lips were either painted white or left unpainted. The blackface mask and the carnivalesque style allowed writers and performers to criticize and question authority, while hiding behind the excuse of acting out African American ideas and expressions. Despite this, blackface served to dehumanize African Americans, reinforced stereotypes, and popularized inaccurate representations of African-Americans. Minstrel show entertainment included imitating black music and dance and speaking in a plantation dialect. The shows featured a variety of jokes, songs, dances and skits that were based on the ugliest stereotypes of African American slaves and marked by a mocking challenge to authority and the traditional social hierarchy.


The Structure

The typical structure of the Minstrel Show was broken up into two parts. In part one, the performers were arranged in a semicircle with the interlocutor in the middle and the end men – Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, seated closest to the audience. The Interlocutor served as the master of ceremonies and played straight man to his two jokester friends, Mr. Tambo, who played the tambourine, and Mr. Bones, who played the castanets or spoons. The interlocutor would usually perform in whiteface wearing formal attire, while the rest of the performers would perform in blackface in flashy coats and trousers. A show would start a grand chorus number, at the end of which, the interlocutor would give the order, “Gentlemen, be seated.” The show would continue with banter between the jokesters, followed by music and dancing. The second act would feature a comic song, a ballad, a variety show and a one-act play. Each show would end with a walkaround song or dance.


The Characters

Rice’s Jim crow became the template for the Sambo archetype. Sambo represented the uneducated rural slave. The northern counterpart to Sambo was the Zip Coon, flashy in style and clumsy attempt to sound sophisticated. Mammy, was the African-American mother figure, in charge of her black children - Pickaninnies. A Hannah was a mixed race woman who was the object of master-on-slave sexuality. The Decline of Minstrel Performance as Mainstream Entertainment. By the 1920’s Jazz had taken over in popularity and African-American artists had defined their performance virtuosity by their own terms. Thomas Fats Waller, Bert Williams, Andy Razaf and Paul Denniker started to create hits of the Tin Pan Alley era. They composed classical, ragtime and jazz music without the use of blackface and were popularly received with standards like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Ain’t cha glad?,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” However, the legacy of blackface moved from the space of live performance into motion picture films, most notably with Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, a film about an aspiring performer who must choose between a life as a cantor in a Synagogue and pursuing his dream. The legacy of Minstrelsy endures in popular culture and media today, and the legacy of re-enforcing imagery of white supremacy and black inferiority has had a powerful and lasting impact on the national psyche.  




By Jared Bellot

While the Scottsboro Boys trial played an incredibly important role in the evolution of the US legal system (this was the case that led to a more wide-reaching interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of "equal protection under the law” and of "due process of law" and expanded the scope of the Sixth Amendment's assurance of a defendant's right to "have the assistance of counsel”) the parallel experiences of these nine boys and the experiences of countless other black and brown youth today is striking. In 2017, the United States has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world. While the U.S. is home to a little less than 5% of the overall global population it contributes to over 25% of the world’s total inmate population. America’s incarceration rate (approximately 714 out of every 100,000 residents or .71%) is about 40% higher than the closest competing countries (the Bahamas, Belarus and Russia), and the American government spends upwards of $200 billion each year on law enforcement and correctional facilities.

The makeup of America’s incarcerated population reveals a dramatic racial division in the United States’ justice system. While African Americans make up just 12% of America’s population, they compose about 44% of America’s prison population. According to the 2000 census, the percentage of African American inmate populations exceeded the percentage of black non-incarcerated residents in each of the 50 states, and is at least five times greater than the non-incarcerated population in 20 states. Only 1/3 of this total prison population is considered to be violent, the other 2/3 is mostly being held for smaller crimes, mainly drug and property offenders. Since 1975, the US population behind bars population has actually increased from 380,000 to a little over 2.3 million in 2016. In states such as Alabama and Florida, two states with lifetime disqualification laws, almost 1/3 of all African American men are no longer allowed to vote. As Economist Glenn C. Loury notes, “mass incarceration has…become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society” and allows for the continued social subjugation of minority communities and the continued adherence to a racialized caste system, not at all dissimilar from the Jim Crow laws of the past. In this way, watching The Scottsboro Boys today, in 2017, is not like watching a dusty relic from the past, but rather, like holding a mirror up to our own society. In telling and retelling the story of Eugene Williams, Roy and Andy Wright, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Ozie Powell, Charles Weems and Haywood Paterson, we would be remiss not to ask ourselves – how do we continue to perpetrate these injustices today?



Who are The Boys?





A Timeline of The Scottsboro Boys

March 25, 1931

Local authorities stop a Southern Railroad train in Paint Rock, Alabama. The Scottsboro Boys are arrested on charges of assault.  Rape charges are added against all nine boys after accusations are made by Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.


March 26, 1931

The Scottsboro Boys are nearly lynched by crowd of over 100 gathered around Scottsboro's jail. Local law enforcement is ordered to protect the boys from the mob.


March 30, 1931

A grand jury indicts the nine Scottsboro boys for rape.


April 6, 1931

Trials begin in Scottsboro, Alabama before Judge A. E. Hawkins.


April 7-9, 1931

Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams, and Andy Wright are tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The trial of Roy Wright ends in a mistrial after some jurors hold out for a death sentence even though the prosecution asked for life imprisonment.


April-December 1931

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and International Labor Defense (ILD) battle for the right to represent the Scottsboro boys.


June 22, 1931

Executions of the Scottsboro Boys are stayed pending an appeal to Alabama Supreme Court.


July 10, 1931

On the date first set for their executions, the Scottsboro Boys listen to the execution of Willie Stokes, the first of ten blacks to be executed at the prison over the next ten years. After hearing gruesome reports of the execution, many of the boys report nightmares or sleepless nights.


January 1932

The NAACP officially withdraws from the Scottsboro Boys case. The Boys are fully represented by the IDL


January 5, 1932

Ruby Bates, in a letter to Earl Streetman, admits that she lied when she told authorities that she was raped.


March 1932

The Alabama Supreme Court, by a vote of 6-1, affirms the convictions of seven of the boys.  The conviction of Eugene Williams is reversed on the grounds that he was a juvenile under state law in 1931.


May 1932

The U. S. Supreme Court announces that it will review the Scottsboro cases.


November 1932

The U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 7-2, reverses the convictions of the Scottsboro boys in Powell vs. Alabama.  Grounds for reversal are that Alabama failed to provide adequate assistance of counsel as required by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.


January 1933

Samuel S. Leibowitz, a New York lawyer, is retained by the ILD to defend the Scottsboro boys.


March 27, 1933

Haywood Patterson's second trial begins in Decatur, Alabama before judge James Horton.


April 9, 1933

Haywood Patterson is found guilty by a jury and sentenced to death in the electric chair.


April 18, 1933

Judge Horton postpones the trials of the other Scottsboro boys because of dangerously high local tensions.


May 7, 1933

In one of many protests around the nation, thousands march in Washington protesting the Scottsboro Boys trials.  


June 22, 1933

Judge Horton sets aside Haywood Patterson's conviction and grants a new trial.


October 20, 1933

The Scottsboro Boys cases are removed from Judge Horton's jurisdiction and transferred to Judge William Callahan's court.


November-December 1933

Haywood Patterson and Clarence Norris are retried for rape, convicted, and sentenced to death.


June 12, 1934

Judge Horton, who had faced no opposition in any of his previous races, is defeated in his bid for re-election.


June 1934

The Alabama Supreme Court affirms the convictions of Haywood and Norris.


October 1934

Two lawyers are charged with attempting to bribe Victoria Price in order to change her testimony.


January 1935

The U.S. Supreme Court agrees to review the most recent Scottsboro convictions.


April 1, 1935

The U.S. Supreme Court overturns the convictions of Norris and Patterson because African Americans were excluded from sitting on the juries in their trials. Patterson v. State of Alabama, (1935); Norris v. State of Alabama, (1935)


December 1935

The Scottsboro Defense Committee is organized to raise funds to pay for the legal fees of the boys.


January 23, 1936

Haywood Patterson is convicted for a fourth time of rape and is sentenced to 75 years in prison.


January 24, 1936

Ozzie Powell is shot in the head by Sheriff Jay Sandlin while attacking Deputy Sheriff Edgar Blalock.


June 14, 1937

The conviction of Haywood Patterson is upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court.


July 1937

Clarence Norris is convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Andy Wright is convicted and sentenced to 99 years for rape. Charlie Weems is convicted and sentenced to 75 years.  Ozzie Powell pleads guilty to assaulting the sheriff and is sentenced to 20 years.


July 24, 1937

Roy Wright, Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery and Willie Roberson were released after all charges were dropped against them.


October 26, 1937

The U.S. Supreme Court declines to review the Patterson and Norris convictions.


June, 1938

The Alabama Supreme Court upholds the death sentence for Clarence Norris.


July 5, 1938

Clarence Norris’s death sentence is reduced to life in prison by Governor Graves.    


August 1938

The Alabama Pardon Board declines to pardon Patterson and Powell.


October 1938

Pardon Board denies the pardon applications of Norris, Weems, and Roy Wright.


October 1938

Governor Graves interviews Scottsboro boys in light of their pardon applications.


November 1938

Governor Graves denies all pardon applications.


September 1943

Charlie Weems is paroled.


January 1944

Clarence Norris and Andy Wright are paroled.


September 1944

Clarence Norris and Andy Wright leave Montgomery in violation of their paroles.


October 1944

Clarence Norris is returned to prison.


June 1946

Ozzie Powell is paroled.


September 1946

Norris, paroled again, leaves Alabama.


October 1946

Andy Wright is returned to Kilby prison.


July 1948

Haywood Patterson escapes from prison and flees north to his sister in Michigan.


June 1950

Andy Wright is paroled.  FBI arrests Haywood Patterson, but Michigan's governor refuses extradition to Alabama.


December 1950

Haywood Patterson is involved in a barroom fight resulting in the death of another man.  Patterson is charged with murder.


September 1951

Patterson is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 to 15 years. He dies of cancer less than a year later.


October 1976

Clarence Norris is pardoned by Alabama Governor George Wallace.


July 1977

Victoria Price's suit against NBC for its movie Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, which she claimed defamed her and invaded her privacy, is dismissed. Price dies five years later.


January 23, 1989

Clarence Norris, the last surviving Scottsboro boy, dies at age 76.


April 19, 2013

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signs legislation officially pardoning and exonerating all nine Scottsboro Boys.