Why the Communist Party Defended the Scottsboro Boys

The accused Scottsboro Boys (left to right): Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems, Roy Wright, and Haywood Patterson. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)


As the freight train whisked its way over the Alabama rails in 1931, nine boys’ lives were changed forever. The details of their skirmish with a group of white men and two women on the train are still unclear. But by the end of the train ride, nine young men—all African-American, all teenagers—were headed toward their death by an unjust, vigilante mob and a legal system that didn’t value their lives.

They were the Scottsboro Boys, and their trial, death sentences, and dramatic appeals helped expose the injustice of the American legal system during the 1930s. But false testimony and rousing pleas for their release weren’t the only drama that surrounded their legal struggle. The Scottsboro case also pitted the NAACP against the Communist Party in a struggle for who would control the boys’ legal defense—and claim this rare spotlight on race in America.

The boys’ case seemed hopeless. After the fight on the freight train, they were falsely accused of rape by the two white women in the group. They were immediately arrested by a posse, thrown into jail in Gadsden, Alabama, and threatened by a lynch mob. Then, all but one were swiftly convicted by all-white juries and sentenced to death.


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