Scottsboro—A case that put racism on trial
When nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women in the US Deep South in 1931, most expected they’d suffer the death sentence. But they’d reckoned without the Communist Party
by Judy Cox
On 25 March 1931, a group of young black teenagers were hitching on a freight train travelling through Paint Rock, Alabama.
On their journey they were forced to fight off a racist attack by a group of white men—who then fled the train and complained to the local sheriff. The teenagers were dragged off the train and charged with a minor offence. But then two white women were discovered on the train. To avoid charges of prostitution they claimed the black teenagers had raped them.
The young men’s trial took place in the town of Scottsboro, Alabama. There was no real evidence against them and they did not receive proper legal representation.
But within just two weeks death sentences had been passed on Eugene Williams (13), Ozie Powell (16), Willie Roberson (16), Olen Montgomery (17), Haywood Patterson (18), Clarence Norris (19), Charlie Weems (19) and Andy Wright (19). The trial of Andy’s thirteen year old brother, Roy, ended with a hung jury because one juror supported life imprisonment over the electric chair.
And so began the case of the Scottsboro Nine, or the “Scottsboro Boys” as they became widely known.
Their trial came as thousands of black men in the Southern states of the US were being arrested without evidence, found guilty by all-white juries and rapidly executed.
As mobs gathered outside their jail, many thought the teenagers would not live long enough even to be “legally lynched”. The Scottsboro Nine survived for one reason—the intervention of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).
On hearing of the case the Communist legal organisation, International Labor Defense (ILD), sprang into action. Communist activist Mary Dalton offered support to the young men’s families. No other organisation, black or white, came to their aid.
The middle class National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) worried that associating with lower class young men accused of rape would only damage their reputation.
Communists argued that the men would never get justice from the South’s racist legal system and could only be saved by mass campaigning across the US and the world.
It was a lesson they’d learnt through bitter experience.
In 1929 the CPUSA had sent two organisers, Tom Johnson and Harry Jackson, to Birmingham, Alabama. Their job was to set up party operations in the city. Both men were abducted, stripped, beaten and driven out of the city.
Southern Jim Crow laws enshrined strict racial segregation, while the Ku Klux Klan terrorised black people who dared to step out of line—and those Communists who dared to organise among them. Just 12 years earlier, poor black sharecroppers organised a farmers’ union in Elaine, Arkansas. White vigilantes unleashed a wave of terror in the town and murdered over 800 black men, women and children.
The Communists had a reputation for confronting racist terror. The party was the driving force behind the 'National Anti‑Lynching Committee', which publicised the racist murders of black men. One was 84 year old Dennis Crow, who was dragged from his bed and lynched after a fallacious rape allegation. Another was Tom Robertson, who was targeted after a row with a neighbour. He saw four members of his family lynched before he was executed.
The CPUSA combined the struggle against poverty with the fight against racism. As a result, the party recruited many talented young black activists. The campaign to free the Scottsboro Nine spread rapidly to the Northern states. On 12 April 13,000 people marched for justice in Cleveland, Ohio, and the following day 20,000 protested in New York.
The ILD and its international wing, Red Aid, organised protests across the world, from Sydney to Montreal, from Cape Horn to Shanghai and Buenos Aires. In London in February 1932, 2,000 marched for the Scottsboro Nine from the Thames to Hyde Park. In April, supporters marched from Poplar and Bermondsey to the US embassy.
The Scottsboro Nine campaign was rooted in the international working class movement. It was sustained by London dockers, German engineers, Dutch railworkers and Russian miners. And it was led by black and white socialists.
Black women were particularly prominent. Within weeks of the verdict, the mothers of the defendants—Janie Patterson, Viola Montgomery, Mamie Williams Wilcox and her one year old baby, Ida Norris and Ada Wright—were travelling across the US speaking to rallies. Janie and Ada led protests in Harlem, the heart of the black community in New York.
Ada, a domestic worker who had never left Tennessee before, went on an arduous speaking tour of 16 European countries. In England, she spoke to audiences of hundreds in Greenwich and Willesden in London, and she was greeted by crowds in Bristol, and Manchester. In Scotland, she spoke in Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Lockerbie, Springburn and Glasgow.
Communist leader and former MP Shapurji Saklatvala addressed Ada’s farewell at east London’s Shoreditch church, saying:
“The British workers have shown by their reception to Mrs Wright that they have broken down the barriers dividing them from the Negro races.”
One thousand supporters marched with Ada to Liverpool Street station.
The authorities were unremittingly hostile to Ada. She was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia and expelled from several countries. But working class people turned out in their thousands to hear her.
Now that the campaign had won popularity, the NAACP fought to regain the initiative. They tried on several occasions to win the right to provide legal defence. They argued that instead of marches and protests, which could antagonise Southern opinion, the Nine’s best chance was to seek a respectable defence.
The party and the NAACP were locked in battle for leadership for much of the rest of the campaign—but the families never wavered from their support for the Communist ILD.
In March 1932, the Alabama State Supreme Court upheld the original convictions. Only 13 year old Eugene Williams was granted a new trial because of his age. But in May the United States Supreme Court decided to hear the case, a defeat for the Alabama court.
Ada believed that her international campaign had won this concession. And she fiercely defended the Communists’ tactics against the NAACP, who she publicly denounced on several platforms.
Black women were also central to the Scottsboro campaign in Harlem. Louise Thompson Patterson, a figure in Harlem’s Black Renaissance, became a leading spokesperson and organised a march through Washington DC in May 1933. It attracted 5,000 and was the first civil rights march in the capital.
Audley Moore was a Louisiana-born, working class black woman. The granddaughter of a slave, members of her family had been lynched. She was among 4,000 Harlem residents who joined the ILD in 1933. She threw herself into the Scottsboro campaign and gained a reputation as a “stepladder” speaker, addressing crowds on street corners.
In April 1933 Ruby Bates, one of the women who accused the Scottsboro Nine, admitted that the young men had never touched her and became a witness for the defence. This admission did not lift the death sentences that hung over the men.
In 1934 ILD lawyers launched a legal challenge because black people were wrongly excluded from the Scottsboro jury. The Alabama Supreme Court denied the motion for a retrial. In 1937 the Nine had their death sentences commuted to long terms of prison.
By July, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Roy Wright, and Eugene Williams were released. But the remaining five had their sentences confirmed. The following year Charlie Weems was paroled. In 1944 Clarence Norris and Andy Wright were released on parole, followed in 1946 by Ozie Powell. Clarence Norris was released again the same year, after having been reimprisoned. In 1948 Haywood Patterson escaped from jail but was later recaptured. In 1950, after 19 years in prison, Ada’s son Andy was finally released.
The Scottsboro Nine had heard their death sentences announced four times and lost years of their lives. But they did survive. On 4 April 2013, all nine were awarded posthumous pardons.
There were many more “legal lynchings” in the South. But the case set the pattern for those that came after—from the “Free Angela Davis Campaign” of the 1970s through the fights against deaths in police custody today.
This article first appeared in Socialist Worker. Reproduced with the author's permission.