When a rock falls into a pond, it makes a big splash and sends out ripples that get smaller and smaller. I wonder if the 70-year-old case of the “Scottsboro Boys” still generates little waves in our national conscience. That case bounced through the state courts of Alabama and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1930s, touching raw nerves for years. The "Scottsboro Boys" were nine African American teens arrested for rape in 1931, on the words of two twenty-something women who were white. Lives were ruined, even though one girl recanted and no evidence ever supported the charges. One of the defendants was only twelve, another thirteen, but they were convicted along with the others.
In 1931, the Depression forced many kids from home, where their families couldn't feed them. Young kids dropped out of school to hop freight trains going to big cities, looking for work. A gang of black males jumped on a train to ...view middle of the document...
The nine were shipped to Scottsboro. Hundreds gathered around the Scottsboro jail for a lynching, but the National Guard was called out to prevent such a crime. Instead, the nine went on trial together, twelve days later, represented by two inexperienced and sometimes drunken lawyers. All jurors were white men, of course. Three of the defendants were so badly brutalized that they confessed to the rape, and that was enough to convict and hand down death penalties.
The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions, with the exception of the youngest defendant, who was twelve at the time of the crime. He, the court said, should not have been tried as an adult. The U. S. Supreme Court got the case, and ordered a new trial because of the clear incompetence of their appointed lawyers. The defendants would be tried one at a time. New trials started in 1933, and a New York defense attorney ripped the accusations to ribbons in his cross-examinations. One of the women admitted there was no rape. Holes in the stories were exposed, the result two more death sentences. The Alabama jurors were not going to be fooled by slick New York attorneys and evidence, no sir! The US Supreme Court threw out the trials and the state of Alabama ordered new ones. The cases dragged on. In 1937, the death sentences had become 75-year prison terms, and charges against four defendants were dropped. They'd already spent six years in prison, though.
The trials show us how racism and stubbornness can deny justice to the innocent. The evidence, the truth, even the US Supreme Court, could not get these men freed. Nothing could give them back their lives. The story of the Scottsboro defendants is as ugly as it gets, but it's a part of America. We can't ignore the bad stuff; that's where we learn the most. Our disgust at the treatment of the Scottsboro defendants doesn't mean we can't make the same mistakes in 2007 or 2008. Hindsight doesn't guarantee that Genarlow Wilson will be treated fairly or get his life back. The Scottsboro case DOES show us how laws and the courts can be perverted to support institutionalized racism and class hatred.