Roy Exum: The Scottsboro Boys

Friday, March 24, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is a good-sized train tunnel that runs under the northern tip of Lookout Mountain, right next to Cummings Highway. It was inside that tunnel on this very weekend 86 years ago, that the worst tragedy in the fabled history of the South was born. This was during the tight grip of the Depression and about two dozen hobos had jumped the train from the time it left Southern Railway's Chattanooga yard before it got to the Lookout Mountain tunnel. Five were from Chattanooga and they were desperate to find work.

Because it was pitch black inside the tunnel, a white teen-aged hobo stepped on the hand of an 18-year-old black hobo, this as Haywood Patterson was hanging on a tanker car for dear life. “We was just mindin' our own business, when one of them said, 'This is a white man's train. All you N***** (expletive) unload.' But we weren't goin' nowhere so there was a fight. We got the best of it and threw them off,” he once said.

The white hobos, thusly humiliated, told the stationmaster in Stevenson they had been viciously attacked by blacks. He wired ahead to Paint Rock, about 90 miles from Chattanooga and tiny. There are barely 200 people who live there today but the train had to stop to get more water for the steam locomotive. The sheriff and a heavily-armed posse were waiting.

As the frightened boys were having their hands tied, two more hobos showed up carrying an explosive lie. “At first they weren't even aware that they were women. They were wearing overalls,” historian Dan Carter said. “They identified themselves as Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. And there are conflicting accounts about who said what, when. But one of the young women said, 'We've been raped. All those colored boys raped us.' And that was it.”

Yes, that changed everything. As the prisoners were taken on a flat-bed truck to the county seat, “The Scottsboro Boys” started the civil rights movement in America. Clarence Norris, age 19 at the time, once said in an interview, “The place was surrounded with a mob. They had shotguns, pistols, sticks, pieces a' iron, everything. The crowd commenced to hollerin' let's take these black (SOBs) up here and put 'em to a tree. I just thought that I was gonna die.”

In the last 86 years, it remains the most outrageous travesty in America’s legal history. The two women, found to be prostitutes in the barrage of trials that went all the way to the Supreme Court twice, had lied to keep from being arrested on vagrancy and morality charges. But within four weeks every boy, ages 13 to 20, had been sentenced to the electric chair. Only four of the Scottsboro Boys knew one another. The other five were total strangers. A Chattanooga gynecologist testified after examining the women there was “no way” they were ever assaulted. No bruises, no scratches, no sperm, no nothing.

There was not one shred of evidence, nor was there a black juror in any of many trials – all miscarriages of justice. There was almost no trial at all. Norris said, “Cars, trucks, they was comin' in all kinds of ways, the mob was. 'Bring them n***** outta there. If you don't bring them out, we'll come in and get 'em.' That's all you could hear, all over that little town.”

There is a PBS documentary on “The American Tragedy” that is fabulous. Part of it reads, “By the next morning, the National Guard had secured the jail while newspapers identified what one called "the nine Negro brutes."

"Charlie Weems, the oldest, was 19; Eugene Williams, the youngest, 13. Willie Roberson suffered from syphilis so severe he could barely walk. Olin Montgomery, nearly blind, had been looking for a job to pay for a pair of glasses. Clarence Norris had left behind 10 brothers and sisters in rural Georgia.

“Ozie Powell had been found riding alone. Andy Wright, 19, and his 13 year-old brother Roy had ridden from Chattanooga together. It was Roy's first time away from home. Haywood Patterson had been riding the freight trains so long, he said he could light a butt in the wind from the top of a moving car.”

All of the families together raised $60 and hired a real estate lawyer from Chattanooga. He was talked into taking the case by the judge and, according to one account, Steven Roddy was unprepared, and, on the first day of trial, was "so stewed he could hardly walk straight." The trial began just 12 days after the arrests in Paint Rock and Roddy had told the Scottsboro Boys to plead guilty in the only 20 minutes he spoke to them before the first trial.

James Godwin, another historian, told PBS, “The trials of the nine defendants for rape got under way on Monday, April 6, in the Scottsboro courthouse. It was a traditional trading day in town, but the usual crowd was swelled by thousands more from hundreds of miles around. Eventually, the largest crowd in Scottsboro's history squeezed into the courthouse square (estimated over 10,000), as a brass band played "Dixie" and "Hail, hail, the gang's all here."

Every trial was a horrible mockery of justice. The last trial, for 14-year-old Roy Wright, was the worst. Eleven of 12 jurors voted for the death penalty but the last was reluctant to put someone so young in the electric chair. The judge called it a hung jury and the boy was sent to Birmingham. The Scottsboro Boys were never allowed to see their families.

Everyone spent lengthy prison sentences. This from the Death Penalty Information Center: “On November 21, 2013, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to posthumously pardon Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson, three of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a group of black teenagers who were charged in 1931 of raping two white women.

“Eight of the nine defendants, including the three who were recently pardoned, were originally sentenced to death. The racial injustice of the case sparked protests and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one because the defendants did not receive adequate counsel and the other because no blacks were allowed to serve as jurors during the trials. The three who were recently exonerated were the last of the group who had not already been pardoned or had charges against them dropped.

“Legislation passed in Alabama earlier this year allowed the Board to grant posthumous pardons in cases involving racial or social injustice. The pardon and parole board's assistant executive director, Eddie Cook, said, "Today, we were able to undo a black eye that has been held over Alabama for many years." Alabama Governor Robert J. Bentley said, “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”

* * *

"My name is Clarence Norris, one of the Scottsboro Boys. I was arrested in Alabama in 1931 and sentenced to the electric chair three times. The governor commuted my sentence to life in prison. I was released on parole twice, once in 1944, and I broke my parole and went back to prison until I got out in 1946. I broke my parole again and I have been free ever since. I want to know if Alabama still wants me." -- explaining the reason for his call to Alabama Governor George Wallace, 1973

On October 25, 1976, Clarence Norris, the last of the nine Scottsboro defendants, was no longer wanted by Alabama authorities. Moreover, he was officially declared "not guilty."

His comment on the pardon: "The lesson to black people, to my children, to everybody, is that you should always fight for your rights, even if it cost you your life. Stand up for your rights, even if it kills you. That's all that life consists of."

Clarence Norris died from complication due to Alzheimer’s Disease on January 23, 1989. The Scottsboro Boys all died free.

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