The Scottsboro Trial Name:_______________
Tom Robinson's trial bears striking parallels to the "Scottsboro Trial," one of the most famous-or
infamous-court cases in American history. Both the fictional and the historical cases take place in the
1930s, a time of turmoil and change in America, and both occur in Alabama. In both, too, the
defendants were African-American men, the accusers white women. In both instances the charge was
rape. In addition, other substantial similarities between the fictional and historical trials become
First, it is essential to understand the social and economic climate of the 1930s. The country was in
what has been called the Great Depression. Millions of people had lost their jobs, their homes, their
businesses, or their land, and everything that made up their way of life. In every American city of any
size, long "bread lines" of the unemployed formed to receive basic foodstuffs for themselves and
their families, their only means of subsistence.
Many people lived in shanty towns, their shelters made of sheet metal and scrap lumber lean-tos. All
over America it was common to see unemployed men and women riding the rails, looking for work,
shelter, and food-for anything that offered some means of subsistence, some sense of dignity. It was
a time when even a full-time employee, such as a mill worker, earned barely enough to live on. In
fact, in 1931 a person working 55 or 60 hours a week in Alabama and other places would earn only
about $156 annually.
The economic collapse of the 1930s resulted in ferocious rivalry for the very few jobs that became
available. Consequently, the ill will between black and white people (which had existed ever since the
Civil War) intensified, as each group competed with the other for the few available jobs. One result
was that incidents of lynchings--primarily of African-Americans--continued. Here, lynching should
be defined as the murder of a person by a group of people who set themselves up as judge, jury, and
executioner outside the legal system.
It was in such a distressing social and economic climate that the Scottsboro case (and Tom
Robinson's case) unfolded.
On March 25, 1931, several groups of white and black men and two white women were riding the
rails from Tennessee to Alabama in various open and closed railroad cars designed to carry freight
and gravel. At one point on the trip, the black and white men began fighting. One white man would
later testify that the African-Americans started the fight, and another white man would later claim
that the white men had started the fight. In any case, most of the white men were thrown off the
train. When the train arrived at Paint Rock, Alabama, all those riding the rails-including nine black
men, at least one white man, and the two white women--were arrested, probably on charges of
vagrancy. The white women remained under arrest in jail for several days, pending charges of
vagrancy and possible violation of the Mann Act. The Mann Act prohibited the taking of a minor
across state lines for immoral purposes, like prostitution. Because Victoria Price was a known
prostitute, the police were tipped off (very likely by the mother of the underaged Ruby Bates) that
the two women were involved in a criminal act when they left Tennessee for Alabama. Upon leaving
the train, the two women immediately accused the African-American men of raping them in an open
railroad car (referred to as a "gondola") that was carrying gravel (or, as it was called, "chert").
The trial of the nine men began on April 6, 1931, only twelve days after the arrest, and continued
through April 9, 1931. The chief witnesses included the two women accusers, one white man who
had remained on the train and corroborated their accusations, another acquaintance of the women
who refused to corroborate their accusations, the physician who examined the women, and the
accused nine black men. The accused claimed that they had not even been in the same car with the
women, and the defense attorneys also argued that one of the accused was blind and another too
sickly to walk unassisted and thus could not have committed such a violent crime. On April 9, 1931,
eight of the nine were sentenced to death; a mistrial was declared for the ninth because of his youth.
The executions were suspended pending court appeals, which eventually reached the Supreme Court
of the United States.
On November 7, 1932, the United States Supreme Court ordered new trials for the Scottsboro
defendants because they had not had adequate legal representation.
On March 27, 1933, the new trials ordered by the Court began in Decatur, Alabama, with the
involvement of two distinguished trial participants: a famous New York City defense lawyer named
Samuel S. Leibowitz, who would continue to be a major figure in the various Scottsboro negotiations
for more than a decade; and judge James E. Horton, who would fly in the face of community
sentiment by the unusual actions he took in the summer of 1933.
In this second attempt to resolve the case, the trial for the first defendant lasted almost two weeks
instead of only a few hours, as it had in 1931. And this time the chief testimony included the carefully
examined report of two physicians, whose examination of the women within two hours of the
alleged crime refuted the likelihood that multiple rapes had occurred. Testimony was also given by
one of the women, Ruby Bates, who now openly denied that she or her friend, Victoria Price, had
ever been raped. As a result of this, as well as of material brought out by investigations and by cross-
examinations of the witnesses of Samuel Leibowitz, the character and honesty of accuser Victoria
Price came under more careful scrutiny.
On April 9, 1933, the first of the defendants, Haywood Patterson, was again found guilty of rape and
sentenced to execution. The execution was delayed, however; and six days after the original date set
for Patterson's execution, one of the most startling events of the trial took place: local judge James
Horton effectively overturned the conviction of the jury and, in a meticulous analysis of the evidence
that had been presented, ordered a new trial on the grounds that the evidence presented did not
warrant conviction. (It is probably not a coincidence that Judge Horton lost an election in the fall
following his reversal of the jury's verdict.)
Despite judge Horton's unprecedented action, the second defendant, Clarence Norris, was tried in
late 1933 and was found guilty as charged; but his execution was delayed pending appeal.
During this time all the defendants remained in prison, and not for two more years was any further
significant action taken as Attorney Leibowitz filed appeals to higher courts. Finally, on April 1, 1935,
the United States Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Patterson and Norris on the grounds
that qualified African-Americans had been systematically excluded from all juries in Alabama, and
that they had been specifically excluded in this case.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding To Kill A Mockingbird. The Greenwood Publishing, Inc.
Wesport, CT: 1994.
New York Times, Tuesday, April 4, 1933, p. 10, Vol. LXMI.
GIRL REPEATS STORY IN SCOTTSBORO CASE
By RAYMOND F. DANIELL, Special to the New York Times. DECATUR, Ala., April 3.
Victoria Price, whose testimony two years ago at Scottsboro led Jackson County juries to condemn
eight of nine negro defendants to death, repeated her charges today before Judge James E. Horton
and a jury in the Morgan County Court House at the first of the retrials ordered by the United States
At times when Samuel S. Leibowitz, chief of defense counsel, pressed searching questions regarding
her past, her lip curled and she snapped her answers in the colloquialisms of the "poor white."
Mrs. Price entered an angry denial when Mr. Leibowitz asked if she had not concocted the whole
story of the mass attack by the negroes and forced Ruby Bates, the other victim of the alleged crime,
to corroborate her in order to forestall the danger of her own arrest for vagrancy or a more serious
SHOUTS ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS
"That's some of that Ruby Bates' dope," she shouted in a voice that shook with anger.
"You can't prove it," she shouted another time when Mr. Leibowitz promised to show the court that
the condition in which doctors found her when she was examined at Scottsboro after an armed
posse had taken the girls and the negroes off the train on which the attack supposedly took place,
was the result of her misconduct the night before in a hobo jungle on the outskirts of Chattanooga.
Certified copies of court records from Huntsville where Mrs. Price lived with her widowed mother
were offered by Mr. Leibowitz to show that prior to March 25, 1931, she had been arrested for
offenses against the moral code.
She defended the testimony she had given with as much fire as she defended her reputation, heatedly
denying at one moment that she had wrecked the home of a married woman with two babies, and in
the next breath thrusting aside seeming inconsistencies in her testimony with apologies for her lack
of education and faulty memory.
DOCTOR DESCRIBES INJURIES
Although Mrs. Price insisted that she had fought the negroes until her strength gave out, and
declared that her head was cut open by a blow from the of a pistol wielded by Patterson, Dr. R. R.
Bridges, the Scottsboro physician, who testified just before adjournment, said he had found only
superficial bruises and scratches when he examined her.
While the doctor was on the stand judge Horton took a hand in the examination, showing particular
interest in the physician's statement that neither Mrs. Price nor her companion, the Bates girl, were
hysterical or nervous when they were brought to his office. Not until the next day, he said, did either
of them show any signs of nervousness and then, after a night in jail, it manifested itself in tears.
The star witness for the State told the sordid details of the crime before a crowded court with
unabashed frankness and plain-speaking. She repeated the lewd remarks she said the negroes made to
her without the flutter of an eyelash and in a voice that carried to the furthest comer of the
courtroom. The only women in the crowd which heard her story and the very clinical medical
testimony that followed were two visitors from New York. At times they looked as though they
wished they had not come.
On May 1, 1935, after the Supreme Court decision reversing the convictions of the winter of 1933
trials, Victoria Price swore out new warrants against all the Scottsboro defendants. New trials began,
which continued throughout 1936 and 1937. Token African-Americans served on these juries.
One of the defendants was sentenced to death, but in 1938 his sentence was commuted to life
imprisonment by the governor of Alabama; three others received jail sentences ranging from
seventy-five to ninety-nine years. Charges of rape were dropped against one, but he received a
twenty-year sentence for assaulting a deputy sheriff. Four others were released in 1937 after charges
against them were dropped. Several widely read Alabama newspapers and many prominent
Alabamians began working for the release of all the Scottsboro defendants in the 1940s. One by one
they were paroled throughout the 1940s. The last one to leave prison was released in 1950.
But the Scottsboro case was still not over. In 1970 the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) and others discovered that Clarence Norris, the last of the "Scottsboro
boys," was still alive. He had violated his parole by fleeing the state of Alabama in 1946, and he was
still subject to arrest should he return to the state where some of his relatives still lived. The last
Scottsboro defendant, he had spent the most time on death row and had been a fugitive from justice
for thirty years. Finally, on October 25, 1976, Clarence Norris was officially pardoned by Governor
George C. Wallace of Alabama. The attorney general of the state of Alabama, Bill Baxley, facilitated
the pardon with the written recommendation to the parole and pardons board. Baxley's letter
declaring that his research showed Norris to be innocent of the 1931 charges was based largely on
the arguments made by Judge James E. Horton in 1933. After much anxiety about returning to
Alabama and possibly subjecting himself to arrest, Norris returned in 1976 to accept the pardon.
Strangely enough, the Scottsboro case, which had begun in 1931, was still not entirely over. In 1975
the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) aired a program entitled "Judge Horton and the
Scottsboro Boys"; and several weeks later both Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, both now living under
different names, filed lawsuits against the network for libel, slander, and invasion of privacy. By 1977,
when the suit filed by Victoria Price came to trial, Ruby Bates (who had filed the suit first) had died.
In the course of the trial many of the issues, especially those concerning Price's reliability and the
physician's examination, were again debated. The lawyer acting for NBC closed his summation with a
reading of Judge Horton's 1933 opinion calling for a new trial. Finally, Judge Charles G. Neese
dismissed the case before it reached the jury, declaring that there were insufficient grounds for
proceeding. And the Scottsboro case drew to a close again.