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The Case of Scottsboro Boys

Categories Law, Racism And Discrimination, Society

Essay, Pages 8 (1803 words)

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Essay, Pages 8 (1803 words)

Abstract

The boys, who came to be understood as the Scottsboro boys, resided in a time of severe racial prejudice in the Deep South. Falsely accused of the rape of 2 white ladies, no cash for adequate representation, and a court system that would like to ignore them as rapidly as possible, all 9 young boys were convicted. The Scottsboro trials established a precedent for a Constitutional right to adequate counsel, no matter what color your skin is, and eventually all guilty decisions were reversed.

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The guilty verdicts in this case, were the result of a racial environment that did not enable blacks to have the same civil liberties as whites.

It was unavoidable, given the social environment of Alabama in the 1930s, that these boys would be discovered guilty of rape. It was 1931, in Scottsboro, Alabama, when 9 young kids ages thirteen to nineteen, were implicated of raping 2 white ladies. The charges were the result of a battle that broke out in between black and white riding in a car of a Southern Train freight train.

When the train stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama, the 9 black youths were arrested on charges of assault. Two young white ladies, Victoria Rate, aged 21, and Ruby Bates, aged 17, told authorities they had actually been raped by the nine black youths collared in Paint Rock.

The arrests, charges, and decisions that were rendered were not unexpected given the climate of the time, where conviction was ensured of any black implicated of such a crime. The accusations and convictions of these nine black kids was inevitable, provided the social and economic environment of the times.

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(Patterson & & Conrad, 1950) The social and financial climate of the 1930s, was that of the Great Depression. Millions of individuals had actually lost their tasks, their homes, their services, or their land, and everything that made up their way of living. It prevailed to see out of work males and women riding the trains, searching for work, shelter, and food-for anything that used some means of subsistence, some sense of dignity. It was a time of racial stress based upon existence.

The Great Depression resulted in a rivalry for the very few jobs that became available. As a result, the tension between blacks and whites continued to grow. The lynching of black, without provocation was common. (Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights, 1992) “The press reported that most of the defendants had admitted their guilt, but in fact before the trial only one of the Scottsboro boys, Roy Wright, had accused five of the others while maintaining the innocence of himself, his brother Andy, and two friends from Chattanooga. Of these four the Chattanooga Times reported they were known to police as the “worst young Negroes in Chattanooga,” but none had police records. Before the trial began the Sentinel concluded that “the evidence against the negroes is so conclusive as to be almost perfect.” (Chiasson, 1997)

There were very real, but not rational, racial fears involving the supposed sexual designs of black men on white women. Charges of rape, or even looking at a white woman, often led to lynchings of black men. Lynchings reached a peak around 1900 and the first two decades of the twentieth century, but 42 were recorded between 1931 and 1933, the period of the Scottsboro arrests. (Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights, 1992) America was going through a time of racist turmoil for many reasons. The economic conditions left people at odds, fighting for resources to survive. White people felt that blacks were not deserving of equal opportunities, particularly in a land where opportunities were scarce.

These nine boys, accused of a violent crime, didn’t stand a chance. The justice system was not far from the social climate and ensured that the defendants were at a disadvantage; the young men were assigned Milo Moody, a local lawyer, as a defense attorney who had no preparation in the case. According to a report in the April 18, 1931 edition of the AFRO by Managing Editor William N. Jones, who covered the story on location, some 10,000 white mountaineers and villagers came to town the day of the trial. Later that day, a crowd assembled outside the courthouse and, surrounded by state troopers, reportedly staged a demonstration of approval, complete with a band playing “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.” (Bright, 1994)

The Scottsboro trials, in the legal case of Powell v. Alabama, established the constitutional right to counsel, as the State of Alabama had denied their basic human rights to due process of law. “The story of the Scottsboro Boys is important in civil rights history, but also in the evolution of constitutional law, for it was this case that led to a more wide- reaching, interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and of due process of law.” (Banaszak, 2002) The case also expanded the scope of the Sixth Amendment’s assurance of a defendant’s right to “have the assistance of counsel.”

Specifically, the case ultimately resulted in a guarantee of adequate counsel for all Americans in all criminal trials, state or federal; and a requirement that no race or ethnic group may be excluded from juries. (Butler, 1995) The Scottsboro boys were never given the opportunity to contact their families. They were too poor to afford a lawyer. The judge vaguely appointed all members of the Alabama bar to represent them. Their conviction was appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction. The chief justice, however, disagreed, stating they had not received a fair trial. The death sentences, which were scheduled to be carried out quickly, were postponed pending appeals that took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the sentences were overturned.

Despite the fact that one of the women later denied being raped, the retrials resulted in convictions. All of the defendants were eventually acquitted, paroled, or pardoned (besides one who escaped), some after serving time in prison. Black-on-white rape involved issues other than race: three-quarters of the black men accused of rape were neither lynched nor executed. (Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights, 1992) “Race, gender, and class did not operate independently and predictably. Instead, they acted simultaneously, influencing one another in varied and complex ways. White women were not merely white victims of alleged black aggression.

They were women with the privileges and the suspicions that femaleness evoked in a racist, male-dominated society.” (Dorr, 2000) The defense lawyers who were originally appointed to the case, demonstrated their incompetence in many ways. They were willing to have all nine defendants tried together, despite the prejudice such a trial might cause. The prosecution, wanting for an immediate conviction, decided to separate the case into three trials. The cross-examination of Victoria Price lasted only minutes, while examining doctors R. R. Bridges and John Lynch were not cross- examined at all. Ruby Bates was not asked about contradictions between her testimony and that of Price.

The defense offered only the defendants themselves as witnesses, and their testimony was rambling, sometimes incoherent, and riddled with obvious misstatements. Six of the boys (Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery, and Eugene Williams) denied raping or even having seen the two girls. But three others, all who later claimed they did so because of beatings and threats, said that a gang rape by other defendants did occur. No closing argument was offered by defense attorneys. (Bodenhamer, 1992) The story of the Scottsboro Boys is important not only in civil rights history, but also in the evolution of constitutional law, for it was this case that led to a more wide-reaching, interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law” and of “due process of law.”

The case also expanded the scope of the Sixth Amendment’s assurance of a defendant’s right to “have the assistance of counsel.” Specifically, the case ultimately resulted in a guarantee of adequate counsel for all Americans in all criminal trials, state or federal; and a requirement that no race or ethnic group may be excluded from juries. (Dripps, 1997) The story of the Scottsboro Boys has repeatedly been referred to as “one of the most shameful examples of injustice in our nation’s history.” (Mack, 2005)

Racism as it played out in the Deep South of the 1930’s, would not allow jurors to consider the presumption of innocence when a black was charged with raping a white woman. Blacks were presumed guilty unless they could establish their innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. Blacks had no rights, and white people who stood up for blacks risked being lynched themselves.

The lawyers who defended these boys had to be protected from the uprising that may occur outside of the courtroom. In this time and in this place, the Scottsboro boys could not be found innocent, as demonstrated by Alabama’s continued attempts to override the decision of the Supreme Court. (Scottsboro Case, 2004)

References

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  • Bodenhamer, D. J. (1992). Fair Trial: Rights of the Accused in American History. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78196456 Bright, S. B. (1994).
  • Counsel for the Poor: The Death Sentence Not for the Worst Crime but for the Worst Lawyer. Yale Law Journal, 103(7), 1835-1883. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000205939
  • Butler, P. (1995). Racially Based Jury Nullification: Black Power in the Criminal Justice System. Yale Law Journal, 105(3), 677-725. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000370558
  • Scottsboro Case. (2004). In The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=101269931
  • Dorr, L. L. (2000). Black-on-White Rape and Retribution in Twentieth-Century Virginia: “Men, Even Negroes, Must Have Some Protection”. Journal of Southern History, 66(4), 711. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002373102
  • Dripps, D. A. (1997). Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: The Case for an Ex Ante Parity Standard. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 88(1), 242-308. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001524842 (1992).
  • Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present (C. D. Lowery & J. F. Marszalek, Ed.). New York: Greenwood Press. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=71235565
  • Mack, K. W. (2005). Rethinking Civil Rights Lawyering and Politics in the Era before Brown. Yale Law Journal, 115(2), 256+. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5011950418
  • Patterson, H., & Conrad. (1950). Scottsboro Boy (1st ed.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5765050
  • Seshadri, V. (2001, Spring). Which Side Are You on, Boys?. American Scholar, 70, 49. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Questia database: http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002402684

Cite this essay

The Case of Scottsboro Boys. (2017, Mar 22). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-scottsboro-trials-essay

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