The Tragedy of Scottsboro Boys Trials


By Hasan Kwame JeffriesThe Ohio State University

The Scottsboro Nine trials began on April 6, 1931. None lasted much more than a day. The two white women testified that they had been assaulted by six in the group, and that was enough for the all-white, all-male jury to convict the nine of rape and recommend death by electrocution.

A black-and-white photo of nine men and two women standing
None of the Scottsboro trials took much more than a day. (Image: National Portrait Gallery/Public domain)

Ozie Powell

Ozie Powell was born in rural Georgia in 1916. His mother made ends meet by working for white families in Atlanta. School wasn’t an option for Powell; he attended for less than a year and only learned to write his name.

He was 14 when the Depression hit. With no work available near his home, he set out on his own. He found irregular employment at sawmills and lumber camps—a couple of weeks here, a couple of weeks there.

A Minor Scuffle

On March 25, 1931, Powell was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he jumped aboard a Southern Railroad freight train bound for Memphis. He found an isolated spot and settled in for the ride. Then the fight broke out. Powell wasn’t involved, but he saw what happened.

There were two groups of teens, one Black and the other white. A white boy intentionally stepped on the hand of a Black teen. Nothing happened at first; the Black teen let it pass. In the Jim Crow South, it was better to ignore such provocations. But then the white boy came back and did it again. Words were exchanged, then punches. The Black teens bested the white ones, throwing them off the train.

It was a minor scuffle; no one was hurt. But there were some bruised white egos, and that has always been a dangerous thing for Black people. The white boys reported that they had been attacked, and the authorities radioed ahead to the next station. When the train pulled into Paint Rock, Alabama, police rounded up everyone on board.

They found nine Black youths: Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Eugene Williams, Charley Weems, Roy Wright, and Ozie Powell. The oldest was 19, the youngest 12. Only four of the boys knew each other; Powell didn’t know anyone. But none of that mattered to the police, who intended to arrest and charge whoever they found with assault.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim CrowWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Sentenced to Death

But then the police discovered two white women—Ruby Bates and Victoria Price—who had been riding the rails as well. They were about to charge them with vagrancy and illegal sexual activity when the pair falsely accused the nine Black youths of rape. For the white women, it was a “get out of jail free” card. For the Black teens, it was a death sentence.

The police took the boys to Scottsboro, the seat of Jackson County. That evening, the Jackson County Sentinel published a story about the “revolting crime”. A mob soon formed at the Scottsboro jail. A lynching seemed inevitable.

The trial judge affirmed the sentences for all Scottsboro boys but the 12-year-old Roy Wright, as a juror recommended that he receive life.

Powell v. Alabama

The Communist Party USA (CP) had been closely following developments in Scottsboro and rallied to the defense of the kids. They sent a team of lawyers to handle their appeals and organized “End Legal Lynching” support rallies featuring the boys’ mothers. The CP wanted to free the nine youths. They also wanted to boost Black membership in the party.

Lawyers from the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense group appealed the Scottsboro convictions to the United States Supreme Court. In November 1932, the Court ruled in Powell v. Alabama that the defendants deserved to be tried again on the grounds that they did not have adequate representation. Their court-appointed attorney failed to provide suitable counsel. The ruling established an important precedent regarding competent representation, one that holds to this day.

Truth Did Not Set Them Free

During the retrial, Ruby Bates took the stand on behalf of the defense and recanted her testimony. Under oath, she admitted that she had lied. The boys were innocent, she said. But in a Jim Crow courtroom, the truth did not set Black people free. An all-white, all-male jury found Haywood Patterson guilty and recommended the death penalty.

In January 1935, the Supreme Court intervened again. In Norris v. Alabama, the jury ruled that the systematic exclusion of African Americans from the jury denied the defendants a fair trial by their peers. The court ordered new trials. It was the second landmark ruling tied to Scottsboro. But it, too, wasn’t enough to set the boys free. Additional trials were held, additional guilty verdicts were rendered, and additional death sentences were handed down. 

Ozie Powell in hospital.
Ozie Powell not only was beaten and tortured in jail but also shot in the head. (Image: Scottsboro Defense Committee/Public domain)

But the grassroots organizing campaign was beginning to pay off. Alabama wanted the case to go away—the negative attention hurt efforts to attract new business to the state, which was desperately needed during those tough economic times.

The Fate of the Defendants

Seven years after their arrest, the state dropped charges against four of the defendants, including Ozie Powell. But Powell wasn’t released with the others. He faced new assault charges because of a prison altercation. The governor also commuted one sentence to life in prison.

In 1946, the three young men still in prison on the original charges, along with Ozie Powell, were paroled. Powell had served 15 years, a good portion of that time on death row. While incarcerated, he was beaten, tortured, and shot in the head by a sheriff. 

When the whole affair started, he was a shy, industrious 15-year-old kid who had been forced to make his own way in a world that had no place for him. When he was finally released, he returned to Georgia. But he was a broken man—mentally, emotionally, and physically. He would never be who he could have been.

Clarence Norris was paroled at the same time as Powell, but he fled North; he didn’t trust Alabama anymore. Thirty years later, in 1976, he received a long-overdue pardon. Norris was the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys. He died in 1989.

Common Questions about the Scottsboro Boys Trials

Q: Who was Ozie Powell?

Ozie Powell was a 14-year-old black irregular employee who was accidentally present in a scuffle scene, got arrested and trialed among other fellow African Americans in the case of Scottsboro Boys.

Q: How did the Communist Party USA react when Scottsboro Boys were trailed?

After closely following developments in Scottsboro, they rallied to the defense of the kids, sending a team of lawyers to handle their appeals and organized support rallies featuring the boys’ mothers.

Q: Who was Clarence Norris?

He was one of the Scottsboro Boys. Norris was ultimately paroled but since he didn’t trust his homeland state anymore, then fled Alabama to the North.

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