No crime in American history-- let alone a crime that never occurred-- produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on a Southern Railroad freight run on March 25, 1931. Over the course of the two decades that followed, the struggle for justice of the "Scottsboro Boys," as the black teens were called, made celebrities out of anonymities, launched and ended careers, wasted lives, produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America's political left.
Most of the Scottsboro Boys eventually were sentenced to death. What followed was a series of reversals, retrials, recanted witnesses, new judges, and on and on and on. Even after death sentences were thrown out, it took years, and in some cases decades, for all of the Scottsboro Boys to gain their freedom; many went on to broken lives -- and eventually, death -- due to their experiences.Hoboeing was a common pastime in the Depression year of 1931. For some, riding freights was an appealing adventure compared to the drudgery and dreariness of their daily lives. Others hopped rail cars to move from one fruitless job search to the next. Two dozen or so mainly male--and mainly young--whites and blacks rode the Southern Railroad's Chattanooga to Memphis freight on March 25, 1931. Among them were four black Chattanooga teenagers hoping to investigate a rumor of government jobs in Memphis hauling logs on the river and five other black teens from various parts of Georgia. Four young whites, two males and two females dressed in overalls, also rode the train, returning to Huntsville from unsuccessful job searches in the cotton mills of Chattanooga.Soon after the train crossed the Alabama border, a white youth walked across the top of a tank car. He stepped on the hand of a black youth named Haywood Patterson, who was hanging on to its side. Patterson had friends aboard the train. A stone-throwing fight erupted between white youths and a larger group of black youths. Eventually, the blacks succeeded in forcing all but one of the members of the white gang off the train. Patterson pulled the one remaining white youth, Orville Gilley, back onto the train after it had accelerated to a life-endangering speed. Some of the whites forced off the train went to the stationmaster in Stevenson to report what they described as an assault by a gang of blacks. The stationmaster wired ahead. A posse in Paint Rock, Alabama stopped the train. Dozens of men with guns rushed at the train as it ground to a halt. The armed men rounded up every black youth they could find. Nine captured blacks, soon to be called "The Scottsboro Boys," were tied together with plow line, loaded on a flatback truck, and taken to a jail in Scottsboro.
What lessons can we draw from this? Consider:
The story of the Scottsboro Boys is one of the most shameful examples of injustice in our nation's history. It makes clear that in the Deep South of the 1930's, jurors were not willing to accord a black charged with raping a white woman the usual presumption of innocence. In fact, one may argue that the presumption seemed reversed: a black was presumed guilty unless he could establish his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. The cases show that to jurors, black lives didn't count for much. The jurors that in April, 1933 had just voted to sentence Haywood Patterson to death were seen laughing as they emerged from the juryroom. Hannah Arendt wrote of "the banality of evil." Evil rarely comes in the form of monsters, but rather in the form of relatively normal people who, for reasons of careers, ideology, or a desire for society's approval, are indifferent to the human consequences of their actions. Because of indifferent jurors and career-motivated prosecutors, the self-serving and groundless accusations of a single woman were allowed to change forever the lives of nine black teenagers who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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