On March 25, 1931, nine black boys headed west on a Southern Railroad train from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Near the town of Stevenson, Alabama, in the state’s northeastern corner, a fight began with some white youths. A posse – a popular means of dispensing justice in the Jim Crow days – met the train at Paint Rock. The black boys were accused of having raped two women who had been on the train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Because they were indicted in the town of Scottsboro, they would come to be known as the Scottsboro Boys. The youngest of them was thirteen.
At least they were not lynched – that is the best that can be said about what followed. They did not end up like Emmett Till, whose pulped face was to serve, in 1955, as a warning about “what happens to smart niggers.” (His crime was speaking to a white woman, in Money, Mississippi.)
On Thursday the state of Alabama finally pardoned three of the Scottsboro Boys, the last who had any stain of the 1931 trial on their names. The men are long dead. The pardon prods old wounds while trying to heal them.
“This action clears their names for history,” University of Alabama historian Ellen Spears, who sits on an advisory board for the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, tells Newsweek. Justice, like most everything else, moves slowly in the South.
It is easy to talk about the “show trials” of Josef Stalin in the 1930s, which relegated Soviet justice to a coerced confession and the squeeze of a trigger. But in those same years, a black man in Montgomery faced roughly the same prospects as a political dissident in Moscow. At the trial of one of the Scottsboro Boys, Haywood Patterson, Judge William Callahan instructed the jury, “Where the woman charged to have been raped, as in this case, is a white woman, there is a very strong presumption under the law that she will not and did not yield voluntarily to intercourse with the defendant, a Negro.” Patterson, who later wrote a memoir called Scottsboro Boy, described an earlier courtroom as “one big smiling white face.”
In fact, it was the Communist Party that wound up sending an attorney, Samuel Leibowitz of its International Labor Defense, to wage the hopeless fight for justice. Leibowitz capably showed that the two women, Price and Bates, were themselves promiscuous and likely using the gang rape as a way to shield questions about their own sexual behavior.
An opposing lawyer had a rebuttal to that, and to every other sound argument proffered in the Scottsboro Boys’ defense: “[Is] justice in this case…going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York?”
The trials of the accused continued for six years. The Supreme Court visited the case twice, in 1932 and 1935, over questions of due process and jury selection (there were no black jurors). Facing death, the men languished in prison until 1937. That year, charges against five of them were dropped (one, Ozie Powell, was imprisoned for assaulting a court deputy). Four others would remain in prison for various lengths of time, with Patterson escaping to Michigan in 1950, only to be arrested again in that state, for a bar fight, in 1951. He died in prison from cancer the following year. Like the eight others, he could never outgrow Scottsboro. They had been those boys, and always would be.
But the country at least matured. Clarence Norris -- the last of the Scottsboro Boys to survive -- was pardoned in 1976 by Alabama’s notorious segregationist governor George Wallace. And, in the years that followed, the federal government showed a willingness to prosecute hate crimes in the South, especially those that took place during the Civil Rights era. The killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, for example, was not convicted until 1994 – 31 years after the crime.
Finally the time had come to clear the name of the Scottsboro Boys – 82 years after that train ride through Jackson County. An effort led by Sheila Washington, who heads the Scottsboro Boys Museum, convinced the state’s legislature to pass, last April, a measure that allowed posthumous pardons to be granted. It was sponsored by Arthur Orr, a state senator from Decatur. He is a Republican, and white.
So those pardons were granted on Thursday to Charles Weems, Andy Wright and Haywood Patterson by Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Petitions. That means none of the nine has any convictions related to the Scottsboro prosecutions on his record.
Of course, none of them is around to hear it. Patterson died of cancer, in a Michigan cell. Weems moved to Atlanta and worked in a laundry. It is not known when he died. Wright left prison in 1950. It’s not clear what happened to him, either.
“It don’ change what happened,” Eddie Cook says to Newsweek of Thursday’s events. The assistant executive director of the Alabama parole board, he speaks in the deliberate manner that is native to the Deep South. He calls the case a “black eye on Alabama.” Now, at least, it has all the resolution it will ever have.
Spears, the historian, agrees, calling the exoneration “a bittersweet moment today”; the three men are unable to experience the relief a pardon is supposed to bring.
On the same day that Alabama pardoned the three Scottsboro Boys, Michael Skakel walked out of a Connecticut courtroom on a $1.2 million bond. A wealthy scion of a Kennedy family branch, Skakel was imprisoned for the 1975 killing of Martha Moxley: the fifteen-year-old had been bashed to death with a golf club, and there were many reasons to think Skakel, her neighbor, had done it. But his family has spent millions of dollars on his defense, and so he is having yet another day in court, in what The New York Times politely surmised to some might seem like “rich man’s justice at work.”
Lacking fortunes, the Scottsboro Boys had to wait for the state of Alabama to come around. It has done so in the same week as one of the white sororities at the University of Alabama selected its first black president. That comes just a couple months after widespread reports of segregation among campus sisterhoods. Progress can be slow – slow and strange.
“A nice gesture,” is what Douglas Linder calls today’s Scottsboro pardon. A law professor at the University of Missouri, he runs a Web archive called Famous Trials, where he covers the Scottsboro Boys extensively. Like Spears, he thinks the pardons only underscore the injustices that remain – while correcting, however belatedly, those of the past.
He cites the example of the West Memphis Three, young men who had been convicted in 1994 of a gruesome killing of three eight-year-old boys. The suspects’ outcast status almost certainly damned them in culturally conservative region: one commenter on the site Patheos noted that they “were convicted for being young, goth, Wiccan metalheads at the height of the Satanic Panic.” They are now free, but have not been pardoned.
Memphis, by the way, was the final destination of that train from Chattanooga in 1931. There were nine black boys on that train. They are on it still.