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.