Revisiting the infamous trials in civil rights history: ‘The Scottsboro Boys’

BY EILLIN DELAPAZ, Neighborhood News Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG — “Racism and the Scottsboro Boys story never died, it is present today,” Dr. Basha P. Jordan, Jr. said at the Scottsboro Boys documentary and seminar event held at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum Saturday, Oct. 21.

The Midtown event was free of charge and the museum opened its door to the public at 10 a.m. Guests enjoyed a free continental breakfast as they arrived, toured the museum as they got themselves situated. Three Florida attorneys: Hannah Ibanez, Michele Rayner and Tamara Felton-Howard were the panel members who provided deeper context to the Scottsboro story and answered legal questions during the seminar.

The panelists shared stories where they have witnessed the inequity firsthand with clients of their own—blacks with no criminal history who cooperate with law enforcement but are still treated with partiality due to preconceived racial notions.

Panelists discussed the fact that nearly eight decades later African Americans are still confronted by racial discrimination in public as well as in the American criminal justice system.

Rayner spoke about people’s reluctance on speaking up against racism due to accusations of race baiting and fear of retaliation. If we “don’t rock the boat” as Reyner put it, how will we see change?  “If I don’t do too much and call the thing a thing, we’re never going to move forward and Scottsboro is going to continue happening,” she said.

The seminar opened the discussion for a call to action—attendees to the event asked what they could do to challenge the system and make an impact for social and legal equality.

“Call your jury duty and say that you need a fair and impartial juror, make sure that you make it to the jury panel,” Ibanez said.

President of ASALH, Jacqueline Hubbard opens Scottsboro

Felton-Howard explained the importance of participation and observance in courtrooms as well as voting for state attorney. “We need to get someone elected who is fair-minded, and there are people who are potential candidates who do fit that category,” Felton-Howard said.

The Scottsboro story

The museum lights dimmed and the PBS documentary film “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” began to play, taking the roughly 50 visitors back to the immoral and unjust event in 1931 that became a marker in the American criminal justice system and civil rights history.

The film presents the story of nine innocent African-American teenagers (Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Charles Weems, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and brothers Andy and Roy Wright) who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women (Ruby Bates and Victoria Price) while “hoboing” on freight trains near Scottsboro, Ala. Eight of the boys – excluding Roy Wright who was a minor – were put on death row by electrocution.

Victoria Price created the implausible gang rape story against the nine boys and persuaded Ruby Bates to stand by it in court, they feared being arrested for illegally crossing state lines. The case gained the attention of the American Communist Party that used the International Labor Defense and assigned attorney Samuel Leibowitz to represent the nine boys. The NAACP later joined the defense committee.

The next decade posed a struggle for freedom and justice as the Scottsboro Boys faced impartial treatment, ongoing trials, verdicts, appeals and Supreme Court rulings. Mass demonstrations and protests were held across the world and during the third trial, for the first time since the days of abolition, blacks and whites marched together.

But even after Ruby Bates repudiated the rape charge, the Scottsboro Boys spent several years in prison. Four were eventually freed, three were paroled and Patterson who faced the strongest discrimination because he “best fit” the profile of a rapist, died in prison.

The event was not only a history lesson on a flawed and biased system, but a catalyst to open the topic for conversation, create the necessary awareness, and encourage future change. The hope is to obtain a criminal justice system that justly protects and prosecutes those in the court of law.

For any community to change for the better acknowledgment of the issues is required and in part that’s what the Association for the Study of African American Life and History does by putting together events like this one.

“Our goal is to bring historical, cultural and political information to the African-American community,” said Jacqueline Hubbard, president of the association in St Petersburg.

The Scottsboro Boys photos and timeline  

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