This Day in History

March 25, 1931: Scottsboro Nine

Time Periods: 1920
Themes: African American, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights
Scottsboro Nine

The Scottsboro Nine. Samuel Leibowitz, the chief defense attorney, is seated and speaking with Haywood Patterson. Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama.

On March 25, 1931, nine young African Americans were falsely charged with rape. The Scottsboro Nine were Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charley Weems, and Roy Wright.

Eight of the nine young men were convicted and sentenced to death by an all white jury. In response to international protests, their case went to the Supreme Court where their convictions were overturned in Powell v. State of Alabama (1932) and new trials set.

As their cases wound their way through the legal system and campaigns continued for their release, they collectively served more than 100 years in prison.

Two people engaged in the campaign for their release were Raymond and Rosa Parks. The organizing was dangerous and clandestine. Raymond Parks explained:

I would stand in front of a certain street light and lean over and tie my shoe a certain way to give a signal as to where we would meet and the day and the time.

Part of a crowd of 4,000 calling for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys” pass the White House May 8, 1933 on the Ellipse side. Source: Washington Area Spark

In the Encyclopedia of Alabama, it is noted that:

The case might have ended there were it not for the intervention of the International Labor Defense (ILD), a radical legal-action organization sponsored by the Communist Party USA. The ILD recognized the case’s potential to become a lightning rod for a national struggle against racism, as well as a powerful propaganda vehicle and recruitment tool for the Communist Party. ILD lawyers quickly won the trust of the defendants and their parents, as well as a stay of execution until the case could be reviewed by the Alabama Supreme Court.

For more information including a timeline and primary sources, see the website for the PBS film Scottsboro: An American Tragedy and find more photos at Washington Area Spark.