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THE SCOTTSBORO NINE

Although the Civil War would forever emancipate the slaves, issues of racial equality would continue to be debated in the American legal system. In fact, more than sixty years later, in the 1930s, the issues that polarized the nation during John Brown's trial remained unresolved and surfaced again in another trial, held in Scottsboro, Alabama, where the so-called Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine African-American men, had to fight for their lives in a justice system entirely controlled by white Southerners.

During the height of the Great Depression, the "Scottsboro Boys" were riding the rails in search of a job. When their tram pulled into Paint Rock, Alabama, a group of sheriff's deputies swept through and yanked everyone out of the boxcars, including nine African-American men and two white women named Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, who then accused the black men of rape.

The first trials began less than two weeks later, and are generally regarded as a farce, since the un-paid defense attorneys were ill-prepared and offered a weak cross-examination and closing arguments. The prosecutor grimly summed up one case by appealing to the jury, "Guilty or not guilty, let's get rid of these niggers." Not surprisingly, eight of the nine were sentenced to die, with thirteen-year-old Roy Wright receiving life in prison because of his young age.

This trial attracted attention when the International Labor Defense (ILD), a wing of the Communist Party, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) jockeyed for the right to represent the Scottsboro Nine in their appeal. The attorneys compromised and submitted a joint appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, arguing that the trial had been hasty and unfair. The state court, however, upheld the convictions. But, in 1932, the United States Supreme Court decision in Powell v. Alabama overturned the verdict on the grounds that the Scottsboro boys had not enjoyed their Sixth Amendment right to adequate legal counsel in a capital crime.

The Scottsboro Nine would face another trial, but this time it would be held in Decatur in the hope that a change in venue would produce a different result. This time they were represented by Samuel Leibowitz, a highly regarded New York criminal defense attorney hired by the ILD. Excitement built as Leibowitz gave a vigorous defense, concluding with a surprise appearance by Ruby Bates, who admitted she had lied, and that no rape had occurred. Attempting to discredit the defense witnesses by insinuating they had been misled by Northerners, the county prosecutor roared at the jury, "Show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York." The trial of the first defendant ended in another death sentence. Judge Edwin Horton, who had become convinced that the Scottsboro Nine were innocent, set aside the verdict and ordered yet another new trial. Public interest remained high, as rallies were held in northern states and three thousand people protested in front of the White House.

After two cases were transferred to a juvenile court, seven of the Scottsboro Boys stood trial again in late 1934, this time before a judge who was not sympathetic to the defense, resulting in yet another death sentence. In appealing this case to the Alabama Supreme Court, Leibowitz attempted to demonstrate that African-Americans had been systematically excluded from juries. The court denied this appeal, suggesting that failure to seat African-Americans on juries was not a sign of bias, merely an unintended consequence of Alabama's desire to fill juries with "men of intelligence, character, and sound judgment."

The United States Supreme Court did not agree. Leibowitz was able to show that no African-American had served on a jury in Decatur, Alabama, for more than sixty years. In Norris v. Alabama and Patterson v. Alabama, the Court reversed convictions on the grounds that African-Americans had been excluded from the jury. Yet another group of trials was held in 1936 and 1937, which resulted in guilty verdicts for Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, and Andy Wright.

New appeals were filed, but more importantly, behind-the-scenes negotiations in 1937 resulted in charges against four of the defendants—Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright—being dropped. People in Alabama were beginning to tire of the incessant negative publicity they were receiving over these cases. Six years later, Weems and Norris were paroled, Powell was released in 1946, and Patterson escaped in 1948. And in 1960, after serving more than nineteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit, the last Scottsboro defendant, Andy Wright, was released. It was not until 1976 that the state of Alabama granted Clarence Norris, the only remaining living "Scottsboro Boy," a full pardon.

Although these Supreme Court decisions did not prevent the Scottsboro defendants from serving time in prison, the decisions stimulated closer federal scrutiny of state practices. Unfortunately, they also signaled the persistence of radical discrimination and de jure segregation throughout the South. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s would these racial hierarchies begin to change.

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TITLE: Law and Legal Services at CitiMall.com Online Shopping Mall

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