That's what happened to nine black men in the famous Scottsboro case.
Miss Hollace Ransdall
American Civil Liberties Union
May 27, 1931
On March 24, 1931, two mill girls from Huntsville in Madison County, northern Alabama, dressed up in overalls and hoboed their way by freight train to Chattanooga, Tenn., about 97 miles away. The older of the two, Victoria Price, who said she was born in Fayettesville, Tenn. and gave her age as 21, planned the trip, urging the younger one, Ruby Bates, 17 years old, to go with her.
All that is in known so far of this trip is what Victoria
Price later told concerning it on the witness stand. No check on
the truth of her story was made at the trial. According to this story,
the two girls arrived in
A thorough investigation of the neighborhood later by the attorney for the defense failed to discover either Mrs. Brochie or the house she was said to live in.
As the story of Victoria Price goes, the two girls spent
the night with Mrs. Brochie, and set out the next morning with her to look for
work in the mills.
As the freight neared Stevenson, less than half the way
to Huntsville, Victoria testified that the 12 Negroes climbed into the gondola
in which the two girls were riding with the seven white youths, walking over
the top of a box car in front and jumping into the gondola. Ruby said in
a personal interview later that she did not know how many colored boys were in
the crowd. She said she was too frightened to count them. The
Negroes gave the number of their gang as 15.
The white gang, after having been put off the train, had informed the station master at Stevenson that the Negroes and the two white girls were on the freight. The station agent telegraphed ahead to Scottsboro, a station about 18 miles west of Stevenson, to have the train stopped, but the freight had already passed there, so Paint Rock, some 20 miles farther, was notified by telegraph.
Here nine of the Negroes were seized by an armed posse of officers and men. The other Negroes had left the train before it arrived at Paint Rock and nothing more has been heard from them. A report appeared in the press some days after the trial that two Negroes were captured and an attempt made to identify them as members of the crowd of nine Negroes in the Scottsboro case. Nothing more was said about it, so the attempt apparently fell through.
The International Labor Defense, which had representatives on the scene at the time of the trial in Scottsboro, and whose attorney, George Chamlee, of Chattanooga, later made investigations of various phases of the case not brought out at the trial, claims that when the two girls were taken from the train at Paint Rock, they made no charges against the Negroes, until after they were taken into custody; that their charges were made after they had found out the spirit of the armed men that came to meet the train and catch the Negroes, and that they were swept into making their wholesale accusation against the Negroes merely by assenting to the charges as presented by the men who seized the nine Negroes.
There is no way of proving this conclusively, but from the interview I had with the two girls separately several weeks after the trial, I would say that there is a strong possibility of truth in this statement. The talk with Victoria Price, particularly, convinced me that she was the type who welcomes attention and publicity at any price. The price in this case meant little to her, as she has no notions of shame connected with sexual intercourse in any form and was quite unbothered in alleging that she went through such an experience as the charges against the nine Negro lads imply. Having been in direct contact from the cradle with the institution of prostitution as a side-line necessary to make the meager wages of a mill worker pay the rent and buy the groceries, she has no feeling of revulsion against promiscuous sexual intercourse such as women of easier lives might suffer. It is very much a matter of the ordinary routine of life to her, known in both
The younger girl, Ruby Bates, found herself from the beginning pushed into the background by the more bubbling, pert personality of
About 5:45 in the morning on April 6, a picked detachment of the 167th infantry under Major Joe Stearnes, made up of 118 members of five national guard companies of
A Lynching Spirit
Chance conversation with residents of the town, however, did not tend to substantiate this view of the officials. A kind-faced, elderly woman selling tickets at the railroad station, for instance, said to me that if they re-tried the Negroes in Scottsboro, she hoped they would leave the soldiers home next time. When I asked why, she replied that the next time they would finish off the "black fiends" and save the bother of a second trial. Then she told me a lurid story of the mistreatment suffered by the two white girls at the hands of those "horrible black brutes" one of whom had had her breast chewed of by one of the Negroes.
When I called to her attention that the doctor's testimony for the prosecution was to the effect that neither of the girls showed signs of any rough handling on their bodies, it made not impression upon her. Her faith in her atrocity story which had been told to her "by one who ought to know what he was talking about," remained unshaken.
If, as the town authorities claimed, there was no lynching spirit, Major Stearnes, in charge of the soldiers called to Scottsboro, certainly did not go on this supposition. The town looked like an armed camp in war time. Armed soldiers were on guard both inside and outside the courthouse, and before Court opened, the Major gave orders to have persons in attendance at the trial searched.
The defense did not ask for severance but was willing to have all nine negroes tried together. The State, however, demanded that they be tried in four separate cases. For the first case, two of the oldest of the boys were chosen by the prosecution. Clarence Norris, of
The chief witness for the State was the older of the two girls, Victoria Price, who told the story of the trip to
The other girl, Ruby Bates, was found by the prosecution to be a "weak witness," as I was told several times by officials present at the trial. The white youth, Orvil Gilley, who remained on the train with the girls, also was considered stupid and slow-witted. The Gilley boy came from
From all I could gather later, it seems that the opinion of spectators and officials at the trial that both Ruby Bates and Orvil Gilley were no good because they could not make their testimony fit in with the positive identification of the Negroes and the account of events as given by Victoria on the stand. Victoria told me later that she warned the prosecutor that he had better take Ruby off the stand as she was getting mixed up and would make identifications and answers that did not coincide with those she, herself, had made. The minutes of the trial show certainly that she was the only alleged eye witness of the group on the freight train that testified at great length. Questioning of Ruby Bates and Orvil Gilley was very brief, and the other six white boys were not put on the stand at all.
Dr. M. H. Lynch, County Health Physician, and Dr. H. H. Bridges, of Scottsboro, testified at the trial that the medical examination of the girls made shortly after they were taken from the train, showed that both the girls had had recent sexual intercourse, but that there were no lacerations, tears, or other signs of rough handling; that they were not hysterical when brought to the doctor's office first, but became so later. Dr. Bridges said that
Other witnesses put on the stand by the State included Luther Morris, a farmer living west of Stevenson, who testified that he had seen the girls and the Negroes on the freight train as it passed his hay loft, which he said was 30 miles away, and that he "had seen a plenty;" Lee Adams, of Stevenson, who said he saw the fight between the white and colored boys on the train, and Charles Latham, deputy who captured the Negroes at Paint Rock.
Mr. Steven Roddy, attorney for the defense from
The first case went to the jury Tuesday afternoon at 3 o'clock, and a verdict calling for the death penalty was returned in less than two hours. The Judge had previously warned the courtroom that no demonstration must be staged when the verdict was announced. In spite of this the room resounded with loud applause, and the mass of people outside, when the news spread to them, cheered wildly.
The next day, Wednesday, April 8, Haywood Patterson, of
In the third case, five of the remaining six boys were tried: Olin Montgomery, of Monroe, Georgia, 17 years old, and nearly blind; Andy Wright, of 710 West 22nd Street, Chattanooga, 18 years old; Eugene Williams, No. 3 Clark Apts., Chattanooga, Willie Robeson, 992 Michigan Ave., Atlanta, Ga., 17 years old; Ozie Powell, 107 Gilmore St., Atlanta, Ga., 16 years old.
It was brought out in this trial that Willie Robeson was suffering from a bad case of venereal disease, which would have made it painful, if not impossible for him to have committed the act of which he was accused. The case went to the jury at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8, and early Thursday morning, the jury again turned in the verdict calling for the death penalty.
Judge Hawkins proceeded at once after the convictions returned against the five Negroes in the third case, to pronounce the death sentence on the eight who had been tried. He set the day of execution for July 10, the earliest date he was permitted to name under the law, which requires that 90 days be allowed for filing an appeal of a case.
In three days' time, eight Negro boys all under 21, four of them under 18 and two of them sixteen or under, were hurried through trials which conformed only in outward appearance to the letter of the law. Given no chance even to communicate with their parents and without even as much as the sight of one friendly face, these eight boys, little more than children, surrounded entirely by white hatred and blind venomous prejudice, were sentenced to be killed in the electric chair at the earliest possible moment permitted by law. It is no exaggeration certainly to call this a legal lynching.
The most shameful of the cases was left to the last. This was the trial of fourteen-year-old Roy Wright, of
At two o'clock on the afternoon of Thursday, April 9, the jury announced that they were dead-locked and could not agree on a verdict. Eleven of them stood for the death penalty and one for life imprisonment. Judge Hawkins declared a mistrial, and the child was ordered back to jail to await another ordeal at a later date. He is now in the
Why the Two Girls made the Charge?
The first of these questions can be answered only by some
knowledge of the conditions of life in the mill town of
Wages were always low and hours long in all the
Huntsville Mills, but in the Margaret and Helen especially, working conditions
are very bad. The workers had to bear the brunt of the competition with
the modern mills, backed by outside capital and with outside connections to
help them out, while the Margaret and Helen management was muddling along in
the old way. Respectable citizens of
All the mills were running on short time during the period of the Scottsboro case, and had been for some months before. Most of them had cut down to two, three, and four days a week. The Margaret had its workers on shifts employed only every other week, from two to four days a week.
Mill workers found it a dreary, hopeless enough struggle
making some sort of a living when times were good, so when the slump hit them,
it did not take long for a large group to fall quickly below the
self-sustaining line. Low standards of living were forced down still
lower, and many were thrown upon the charity organizations. It is from the
charity workers of
High standards of morality, of health, of sanitation, do not thrive under such conditions. It is a rare mill family that is not touched in some form by prostitution, disease, prison, insane asylum, and drunkenness. "That's the kind of thing these mill workers are mixed up with all the time", complained one social service worker. "I'm beginning to forget how decent people behave, I've been messing around with venereal disease and starvation and unemployment so long."
Under the strain of life in
There was no father in evidence in either the families of Victoria Price or Ruby Bates.
Husbands come and go in many cases, with marriage
ceremonies or without. A woman who takes in a male boarder to help out
expenses is unquestionable assumed to share her bed as well as her board with
him. The neighbors gossip about it, but with jealousy for her good luck
in getting him, rather than from disapproval of her conduct. The distinction
between wife and "whore," as the alternative is commonly known in
"These mill workers are as bad as the Niggers," said one social service worker with a mixture of contempt and understanding. "They haven't any sense of morality at all. Why, just lots of these women are nothing but prostitutes. They just about have to be, I reckon, for nobody could live on the wages they make, and that's the only other way of making money open to them."
It should perhaps be mentioned that there are undoubtedly
very many mill families in
As has been said, it is from the most economically
oppressed of the mill workers of
Ruby is only seventeen. She is a large, fresh, good-looking girl, shy, but a fluent enough talker when encouraged. She spits snuff juice on the floor continually while talking, holding one finger over half her mouth to keep the stream from missing aim. After each spurt she carefully wipes her mouth with her arm and looks up again with soft, melancholy eyes, as resigned and moving as those of a handsome truck horse.
Ruby lives in a bare but clean unpainted shack at
The house in which the Bateses lived when I visited them on May 12, several weeks after the trial, had been vacated recently by a colored family. The social service worker who accompanied me on the visit sniffed when she came in and said to Mrs. Bates: "Niggers lived here before you, I smell them. You can't get rid of that Nigger smell." Mrs. Bates looked apologetic and murmured that she had scrubbed the place down with soap and water. The house looked clean and orderly to me. I smelled nothing, but then I have only a northern nose.
Out in front while we talked, the younger Bates children were playing with the neighboring Negro youngsters. Here was another one of those ironic touches which life, oblivious of man's ways, gives so often. If the nine youths on the freight car had been white, there would have been no Scottsboro case. The issue at stake was that of the inviolable separation of black men from white women. No chance to remind negroes in terrible fashion that white women are farther away from them than the stars must be allowed to slip past. The challenge flung to the Negro race in the Scottsboro case was Ruby Bates, and another like her. Ruby, a girl whom life had forced down to equality with Negroes in violation of all the upholders of white supremacy were shouting. As a symbol of the Untouchable White Woman, the Whites held high - Ruby. The Ruby who lived among the Negroes, whose family mixed with them; a daughter of what respectable Whites call "the lowest of the low," that is a White whom economic scarcity has forced across the great color barrier. All the things made the respectable people of Scottsboro insist that the Negro boys must die, had meant nothing in the life of Ruby Bates.
Yet here was Ruby saying earnestly, as she sat in a Negro house, surrounded by Negro families, while the younger members of her family played in the street with Negro children, that the Scottsboro authorities had promised her she could see the execution of the "Niggers" - the nine black lads who were to be killed merely for being Negroes.
Ruby's mother, Mrs. Emma Bates, clean and neat in a cheap
cotton dress, talked with a mixture of embarrassment and off-handed disregard
for her visitors' attitude toward her. She has worked in the mills for
many years. She was employed by the
Neither mother nor daughter showed signs of regarding the experience Ruby is alleged to have been through as anything to be deplored especially. They both discussed the case quite matter-of-factly, with no notion apparently, that it had marred or blighted Ruby's life at all. The publicity which the case has brought to them, however, has impressed them greatly. They humbly accept the opinion of respectable white people; it never occurs to them, of course to analyze the inconsistencies it makes with their own way of life. Accustomed to seeing Negroes all around them on equal status with themselves for all practical purposes, and looking upon sexual intercourse as part of the common and inescapable routine of life, they have no basis in their own lives for any intense feeling on the subject of intimate relations between whites and blacks. They have just fallen in with "respectable" opinion because that seems to be what is expected of them, and they want to do the proper thing. There are so few times when they can.
The only strong feeling that Ruby showed about the case
was not directed against the Negroes. It was against Victoria Price that
Ruby expressed deep and bitter resentment. For
Both Ruby and
Victoria Price was born in
Miss Price is a lively, talkative young woman, cocky in
manner and not bad to look at. She appears to be in very good
health. The attention which has come to her from the case has clearly
delighted her. She talks of it with zest, slipping an many vivid and
earthy phrases. Details spoken of in the local press as
"unprintable" or "unspeakable" she gives off-hand in her
usual chatty manner, quite unabashed by their significance. Like Ruby,
Victoria and her mother, after some warm argument on the
subject, agreed finally to the number of years that
Although Victoria with a sly eye on me to see if I had
heard of her record and would scoff, assured me that in spite of her low wage
she never made a cent outside the wall of the mill, her reputation as a
prostitute is widely established in Huntsville, and according to the
investigation of the International Labor Defense, also in Chattanooga.
One of the social workers reported that Walter Sanders, chief deputy sheriff in
Sheriff Giles, of
Mrs. Russell, a neighbor of the Prices, claims that
These stories are typical of the sort that circulate
continually among the mill workers of the group from which both Ruby and
Scottsboro, the county seat of
Strolling around observing these things, it is hard to conceive that anything but kindly feelings and gentle manners toward all mankind can stir the hearts of the citizens of Scottsboro. It came as a shock, therefore, to see these pleasant faces stiffen, these laughing mouths grow narrow and sinister, those soft eyes become cold and heard because the question was mentioned of a fair trial for nine young Negroes terrified and quite alone. Suddenly these kindly-looking mouths were saying the most frightful things. To see people who ordinarily would be gentle and compassionate at the thought ot a child - a white one - in the least trouble, who would wince at the sight of a suffering dog - to see these men and women transformed by blind, unreasoning antipathy so that their lips parted and their eyes glowed with lust for the blood of black children, was a sight to make one untouched by the spell of violent prejudice shrink.
The trial judge, A.E. Hawkins, a dignified, fine-looking, gray-haired Southern gentleman, who was absolutely convinced in his own mind that he had done everything to give the Negroes a fair trial, gave himself away so obviously at every other sentence he uttered, that any person with mind unclouded by the prejudice which infected him could have pointed it out. The other officials and citizens with whom I discussed the case also made it disconcertingly clear that they regarded the trial of the Negroes and the testimony given at it, not as an honest attempt to get at the truth, but as a game where shrewd tricks were to be used to bring about a result already decided upon in the minds of every one of them. They all wanted the Negroes killed as quickly as possible in a way that would not bring disrepute upon the town. They therefore preferred a sentence of death by a judge, to a sentence of death by a mob, but they desired the same result, and were impatient with anything that slowed up the conviction and death sentence which they all knew was coming regardless of any testimony.
They said that all negroes were brutes and had to be held down by stern repressive measures or the number of rapes on white women would be larger than it is. Their point seemed to be that it was only by ruthless oppression of the Negro that any white woman was able to escape raping at Negro hands. Starting with this notion, it followed that they could not conceive that two white girls found riding with a crowd of Negroes could possibly have escaped raping. A Negro will always, in their opinion, rape a white woman if he gets the chance. These nine Negroes were riding alone with two white girls on a freight car. Therefore, there was no question that they raped them, or wanted to rape them, or were present while the other Negroes raped them - all of which amounts to very much the same thing in southern eyes - and calls for the immediate death of the Negroes regardless of these shades of difference. As one southerner in Scottsboro put it, "We white people just couldn't afford to let these Niggers get off because of the effect it would have on other Niggers."
In answering the question then, of why ordinarily kind, mild people are aroused to such heartless cruelty against boys who have done them no harm, and if their case were fairly investigated quite likely would be found to have harmed nobody else either, one it brought up against the ugly fact that these pleasant people of the South, the Civil War notwithstanding, are still living on the enslavement of the Negro race. And this brings one to a second ugly fact, that when this is so, the subjugating race cannot afford to have any regard for decency, honesty, kindness, or fairness in their treatment of the black race. These traits are exclusively for relationships with their own people. The thing that stands out above everything else in their minds is that the black race must be kept down; as they put it, "The Nigger must be kept in his place." Repression, terror, and torture are the means that will do it.
Why Society Neglected the Boys
The third question of why these nine young Negroes who have been sentenced to death after a hasty legal ritual has been said over their heads, have never been given a chance to be anything but the illiterate, jobless young itinerants they are, lies tied up with the whole problem of the denial of civil, social, and economic rights to the Negro in America. It can be answered completely only by a study of the discriminations practiced against the Negro in all phases of his life - educational, residential, economic segregation.
We pride ourselves in this country upon having a free and compulsory educational system. Why then did these young Negroes, all under age, not know how to read and write? Because the subjugating white race is not concerned to see that black children go to school. It is not to their interest to educate the Negro. They profit too much by having a race under their feet who will do the dirtiest, the hardest of their work. It is not to their interest to see that the Negro has the same legal and social rights as the white man. Southern whites feel to their marrow-bone only one thing about the Negro, and they say it over and over. Hundreds of thousands of them have been saying it for generations. They will continue to say it as long as anyone will listen. It is their only answer to the Negro problem. It is their reply to the questions of the Scottsboro case - the Nigger must be kept down.
2. Compare and Contrast
With a partner, create a chart on Google Docs or on Word that compares AND contrasts aspects of the Tom Robinson trial with that of the Scottsboro Boys trial, including the alleged rape, the testimony, the characters involved.
Will be graded on how thorough the comparison and contrast is
3. Written Analysis
What aspects about the real-life court system and the social situation in Alabama during the 1930s is reflected in the fictional case and trial involving Tom Robinson? Use examples from each to back up your assertions. [10-12 sentences]
Discuss how the court system and social situations may and/or may not have changed since the 1930s. Use specific real-life examples (2-3) that you have researched as evidence of your assertions. Cite the source for each piece of evidence. [10-12 sentences]
What is your conclusion about the legal and/or social justice's progress in the U.S. since the 1930s? [2-3 sentences]