The Scottsboro Boys, as they were called by American newspapers, were nine young African-American men, all of them between the ages of 13 and 21, who became the defendants in an infamous, overtly racist criminal case.
On March 25, 1931, a fracas broke out between white and black vagrant men riding a freight train through Alabama. When the train was stopped by local authorities, two white women were also discovered onboard. These women had worked as prostitutes and feared arrest; to avert suspicion, they claimed the black men had raped them.
Two weeks later, the men went on trial in the town of Scottsboro, where a throng of white onlookers gathered. Following hasty legal proceedings in which the men received a minimal defense, they were found guilty, and most were sentenced to death.
The Scottsboro case was widely discussed in the northern press. A communist-affiliated legal group, the International Labor Defense, agreed to handle the appeals process. In subsequent trials, prominent defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz offered ample evidence that the accusers were lying, and one of the women disavowed her story and even testified as a defense witness.
Nevertheless, the various Scottsboro defendants were found guilty by 11 southern juries, and their convictions were upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1937 four of the men were released in a plea bargain agreement, and the others were eventually paroled. The last defendant was released in 1950.
As a result of the case, southern mores and Jim Crow justice were held up to national and international scrutiny. African-American church and civic groups were galvanized. Demonstrations were held in Harlem, and the mothers of some of the defendants—women who had passed their lives in obscurity in the rural South—found themselves addressing crowds across the country to win support for their sons. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which had been slow to defend the Scottsboro Boys, was criticized by many African Americans.
Two important U.S. Supreme Court decisions resulted from the Scottsboro case. In Powell v. Alabama (1932), the Court ruled that the defendants had been denied their right to adequate counsel. In Norris v. Alabama (1935), the Court found that African Americans in Alabama had been systematically and arbitrarily excluded from jury rolls. These decisions—and the activism in response to the Scottsboro case—became important precursors to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.