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Exoneration only the first step in making amends to the Scottsboro Boys

December 27, 2013

by Southern Poverty Law Center

The state of Alabama may be a step closer to exonerating all of the Scottsboro Boys – nine Black youths falsely accused of raping two white women 80 years ago in a case that called the nation’s attention to the deadly racial injustice of the Jim Crow South.

Scottsboro Boys jailed w their attorney Samuel Leibowitz, web
The Scottsboro Boys, nine Black youngsters ages 13-19, were pulled off a train into court in 1931 after two young white women falsely accused them of rape; one later recanted. The sheriff protected them from being lynched, but all were tried in quick trials before all-white juries and all but the youngest had been sentenced to death only two weeks after being arrested. When they won retrials the following year, the Communist Party hired famed defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, shown here with his clients. Though he wasn’t able to free them all, he won the Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial discrimination in jury selection.
But as state lawmakers prepare to introduce legislation to clear the youths’ names, Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen warned that it’s also “incredibly important” to ensure today’s criminal trials are free from discrimination that can lead to such injustices today.

“Today, are criminal defendants always provided with effective assistance of counsel? Today, are our juries chosen free of racial discrimination?” he asked at a news conference at the Alabama State House announcing the legislation. “Until we can answer yes to both of those questions, the shadow of the Scottsboro Boys will continue to linger.”

The plight of the Scottsboro Boys began on March 25, 1931, when a sheriff’s posse stopped a train in Paint Rock, Ala. Nine Black youths were arrested and taken to the county seat of Scottsboro, where an all-white jury wrongly convicted them of raping two white women – convictions that resulted in initial death sentences for eight of the youths.

One of the women later recanted the story. After a series of appeals, reversals and retrials, charges were eventually dropped against five of the Scottsboro Boys, though they had already served more than six years in prison. The other four received sentences between 75 years and life. Three of them were paroled by 1950, and the other died in prison in 1952. Clarence Norris in 1976 became the only Scottsboro Boy to receive a pardon.

Two of 9 Scottsboro Boys freed, arrive Penn Station NYC, Olen Montgomery (glasses), Eugene Williams (suspenders) 072637 by AP
Olen Montgomery (wearing glasses) and Eugene Williams (with suspenders) arrive triumphantly in Penn Station, New York City, on July 26, 1937, after charges against them and two others had been dropped two days earlier. – Photo: AP
The case resulted in landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that barred the systematic exclusion of Blacks from criminal juries. It also led the high court to establish the right of defendants in criminal cases to have effective counsel.

The new legislation includes “The Scottsboro Boys Act,” which would establish procedures to allow the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider a posthumous pardon – a power it does not have today. A resolution in the state House of Representatives that acknowledges the Scottsboro Boys were “the victims of a gross injustice” and exonerates them will be introduced as well.

But as Cohen noted at the news conference, the legacy of the Scottsboro Boys – and the two cases that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court – extends far beyond the nine Black youths pulled off a train in Alabama eight decades ago.

“Those two cases are in many ways a monument to the injustice the state of Alabama inflicted on the Scottsboro Boys,” Cohen said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded to ensure that the promises of the civil rights movement became a reality for all. SPLC can be reached at 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36104, (334) 956-8200 or online at http://www.splcenter.org/contact-us.

 

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