Infamous 1931 miscarriage of justice close to being reversed as state government considers law to allow for pardon
Ed Pilkington in Scottsboro
Sheila Washington vividly recalls the day she first learned about the terrible events that occurred in her small town in Alabama almost three decades before she was born. She was 17 years old and, rooting around for something beneath her bed, she discovered a dusty old book that bore the town’s name in its title.
Scottsboro Boy was a memoir by Haywood Patterson, one of nine young black boys who in 1931 became entangled in one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice of the Jim Crow era. Wrongfully accused of raping two white girls, the nine came close to being lynched by an angry mob, were rushed to trial in front of an all-white jury, and ended up serving many years in jail, eight of them on death row.
Yet young Sheila Washington had never heard a single word of the story of the “Scottsboro Boys”, as they were then called, despite having been born and brought up in the small town where such visceral history had been made. When her father found her reading the memoir he snatched the volume from her hands and ordered her never to open it again. “He said he didn’t want me to know the harmful things that were contained inside,” she says.
The injunction clearly failed to stick, because today Washington is on the verge of making her own history in relation to the Scottsboro Nine. A campaign she started four years ago to clear the names of the nine is bearing fruit – the Alabama senate has already voted unanimously to introduce a new law that would pave the way for the posthumous pardon of the men, and this week the state’s House of Representatives is expected to follow suit.
“They were left hanging in the balance,” Washington says, speaking in the disused church she converted in 2009 into the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. “The spirit of those young boys are still asking that this be done, that this must be done.”
Defense Attorney Samuel Leibowitz speaks with defendant Haywood Patterson, one of nine men charged with the rape of two women on a train. The other defendants are standing behind Leibowitz and Patterson. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
Arthur Orr, a Republican state senator in Decatur, a town about 50 miles from Scottsboro that hosted some of the retrials of the teenagers, was inspired by Washington to sponsor the bill that will allow the posthumous pardon to go ahead. He says the move is not just about righting an historical wrong – it is about modern-day Alabama.
“Those individuals are of course long since deceased, but this is important for the state of Alabama,” he says. “We can’t change what happened to the Scottsboro Boys but we can change this, and by doing it we can show that Alabama is a much different place than it was 80 years ago, or even 50 or 40.”
Paradoxically, the Scottsboro Nine had nothing to do with Scottsboro. On the night of 25 March 1931 the boys – the youngest 12, the oldest 19 – were hoboing on a freight train heading west to Memphis, Tennessee, when some of them got into a fight with a group of white youths. The white boys jumped off the train as it passed through the Scottsboro area and complained to the local sheriff that they had been attacked, and with that one dubious claim Southern justice cranked into motion.
By the time the train reached the next stop a posse of armed local white men had formed and the group went from carriage to carriage, arresting all the blacks they could find. As they were searching the train, they also came across two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.
It’s hard from the distance of 80 years to appreciate fully what it meant for white women to be found even in the vicinity of black men in 1931. Any physical contact, however remote, was taboo.
That taboo probably explains why one of the women, Price, invented the story that she and Bates had been gang raped – it was a ruse to avoid any risk of being jailed overnight herself. For the black young men accused of raping the two white woman, the risk was of a different magnitude. In the 1930s Deep South it meant only one thing: death. As the Arkansas poet John Gould Fletcher put it, if a white woman swears that a black man even tried to rape her, “we see to it that the Negro is executed”.
When the nine terrified boys were taken to the nearest town, Scottsboro, and put in the local jail, there was only one question that needed settling: would they be executed judicially or at the end of a rope slung from the nearest tree. There were 13 lynchings in the US in 1931, and the nine came very close to dramatically inflating that figure – the sheriff had to call in the National Guard to hold back a large and angry mob.
Lynchings thwarted, it was then a question of getting the nine legally executed as rapidly as possible. They were put on trial 12 days after their arrest, having met their two defence lawyers – one of whom hadn’t defended a case in years, while the other was a specialist in real estate law – just half an hour before the trial opened.
The only evidence connecting the defendants to the alleged rapes was the testimony of Price herself. Running counter to that was the testimony of doctors who said there was no physical evidence of rape, yet that counted for nothing: within two weeks of the fateful train ride through Scottsboro, eight of the defendants found themselves on death row (only the youngest, Roy Wright, escaped with a long prison sentence).
Remarkably, the story of the Scottsboro Nine keeps giving up its secrets, more than 80 years after the event. Sonny Craig, a retired investment manager, has told the Guardian how the events powerfully impacted upon his family – a story that has never before been publicly recorded.
‘Those young men were innocent; everybody knew’
Craig was about 13 when he discovered that his father, Irwin Craig, had sat on the jury at the Decatur retrial of Haywood Patterson, the author of the book Sheila Washington found beneath her bed. It was 1958, and Sonny Craig was working as a newspaper delivery boy when he came across a faded copy of the Decatur Daily from 1933 with a photo of his father and the other jurors on the front page.
Craig asked his father why he had never mentioned having being involved in such a major trial. “He said it was something he wasn’t particularly proud of. Those young men were innocent; everybody knew that but they were going to be punished for what they didn’t do.”
Craig has no way of confirming the story, but he is convinced that his father, a deeply religious man who died in 1970, was telling him the truth about a traumatic event that changed his life. His father recalled that when the jury came to deliberate its verdict, Irwin, whose nickname was “Red” after the colour of his hair, was the only one of the 12 who refused to send the boys to their deaths, creating a hung jury as a result.
Because of this principled stance, the Ku Klux Klan paid a visit to the Craig home and staked a burning cross in the family yard. Sonny Craig’s uncle stood on the doorstep with a shotgun to protect the household.
With the town at boiling point, “Red” was called in to see the judge presiding over the retrial, James Horton, who exhorted him to change his vote to guilty. “If you don’t, they will kill you, Red,” the judge said.
Irwin Craig protested: “I can’t change my vote, judge.” But Horton replied: “Don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it.” And the rest, Sonny Craig says, is history.
The rest was indeed history. Judge Horton carried out one of the great heroic acts of the Jim Crow period – an act that preceded the heroism of Rosa Parks on the bus by 22 years. After the jury returned with an unanimous “guilty” for Haywood Patterson – despite the fact that by then Ruby Bates had admitted in court that the rape was a fabrication – Horton announced that he was setting aside the verdict and indefinitely postponing all further retrials on the grounds that a fair hearing was impossible. His extraordinary courage in the face of extreme local hostility was repaid the following year when he was roundly defeated at the ballot box and thrown out of his job.
Despite the outstanding bravery of Judge Horton – and of the team of liberal lawyers led by a New York attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, and backed by the American Communist party, who endured countless death threats in the attempt to secure the boys a proper defence, the intensity of prejudice in Alabama was just too powerful to resist. The boys all spent long years in prison, the last one to be released emerging as late as 1950. One, Ozie Powell, was shot while in jail and permanently brain damaged. Only one – Clarence Norris – was pardoned when alive, in 1976.
‘I was told as a child to fear the white man’
The events of that train journey through Scottsboro in 1931 sent a chill that spread right across the black community in the South. JD Stevens, a Scottsboro resident aged 80, remembers how what happened was invoked as a cautionary tale during his childhood in Alabama.
“I was told as a child to fear the white man. If you spoke up for what was right, nine times out of 10 they would kill you. My daddy, he was more scared of a white man than he was a rattle snake.”
For Stevens, a posthumous pardon for the nine would be an important statement “that our community is moving towards equal opportunity and justice”.
Mary Abernathy, another local, believes the pardon would lift a blight that has hung over the town since 1931. She also thinks it would have contemporary significance, as racial discrimination remains a part of contemporary life in Alabama.
“Have we lived up to the promise of treating people as equals? I don’t think so. Today we are still wrestling with the portrayal of different ethnic groups as ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
A demonstration on behalf of Scottsboro boys in Washington gets violent after the supreme court reversed their convictions. Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images
But Abernathy can also speak to the one positive feature to have emerged from the sorry treatment of the Scottsboro Nine. Her father was called as a witness in the retrial of Haywood Patterson by Samuel Leibowitz, who wanted to put the lie to the prosecution claim that Alabama juries were invariably white-only because there were no qualified black men to take a place.
Abernathy’s father, John Sanford, was an eminently qualified African American – he was educated, well spoken, respected. His appearance in the witness stand was another act of supreme courage, given the baying crowd that attended the trial, and he was given a brutal grilling by the prosecutor, who referred to him throughout as “John”. “You are not going to bully this witness, call him Mr Sanford,” Leibowitz interjected, to gasps from the public benches.
Out of Sanford’s testimony, a new hope was brought to America. Leibowitz took the issue of the all-white juries right up to the US supreme court, which in April 1935 issued a landmark ruling that is still regularly invoked today: that black people could not be excluded from juries on racial grounds.
Abernathy remembers her father telling her about the trial and about the Scottsboro Nine, and the clear message that he gave her: “He didn’t want us to be hateful and spiteful and angry. He didn’t want us to grow up to be prejudiced about white people.”
Sheila Washington says that she will not rest until the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, has enacted the bill that will allow the posthumous pardons to go ahead. She is trying to persuade him to sign the legislation on the same wooden bench, still stored on an upper floor of the Scottsboro courthouse, on which the boys’ death sentences were signed.
That day, she says, will be the fulfillment of a dream she has held since she first picked up Haywood Patterson’s book. “It gave me a passion, that one day I would hold that book, burn a candle, and set things right for the Scottsboro Boys.”
This autumn, Kander and Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys will receive its UK premiere at London’s Young Vic Theatre, directed by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman.