On 25th March, 1931, Victoria Price (21) and Ruby Bates (17) claimed they were gang-raped by 12 black men on a Memphis bound train. Nine black youths on the train were arrested and charged with the crime. Twelve days later the trial of Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems, Clarence Norris, Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams and Willie Roberson took place at Scottsboro, Alabama. Their defence attorney was an alcoholic, who was drunk throughout the trial. The prosecutor on the other hand, told the jury, "Guilty or not, let's get rid of these niggers". After three days all nine men were found guilty: eight, including two aged 14, were sentenced to death and the youngest man, who was only thirteen, was given life imprisonment.
John Gates later wrote: "A few weeks after I joined the YCL (Young Communist League), nine young Negroes were arrested on a freight train near Scottsboro, Alabama, convicted of raping two white women and sentenced to the electric chair. This was the famous Scottsboro case. It was to have lasting significance for our country and to set off a chain reaction that is still felt throughout the world.... The plight of an entire people was suddenly illumined for me. Besides, some of the Scottsboro Boys themselves were of my own age; they were victims of the same depression which affected all of us in one way or another. The role of the Communists in the case confirmed my conviction that I had been right in joining up with them."
Two famous writers, Theodore Dreiser and Lincoln Steffens, publicized the case by writing articles on how the men had been falsely convicted. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the American Communist Party both became involved in the campaign and Clarence Darrow, America's leading criminal lawyer, took up the case. In November, 1932, the United States Supreme Court ordered a second trial on the grounds that the men had been inadequately defended in court.
Although Ruby Bates testified at the second trial that the rape story had been invented by Victoria Price and the crime had not taken place, the men were once again found guilty. Mary Heaton Vorse wrote: "The Scottsboro case is not simply one of race hatred. It arose from the life that was followed by both accusers and accused, girls and boys, white and black. If it was intolerance and race prejudice which convicted Haywood Patterson, it was poverty and ignorance which wrongfully accused him."
Heywood Broun, probably the most popular journalist in the United States at the time, took up the case. He also wrote about the conviction of the innocent Tom Mooney. However, in 1933 he was expelled from the Socialist Party of America after appearing with members of the Communist Party at a rally demanding the release of these men. Broun wrote in the New York World-Telegram on 29th April 1933: "I don't expect the Communists to love me, and I'm not going to love them. I hope from time to time to say many things about them, and I expect the same in return. But I think it would be a fine idea not to fight until Tom Mooney is free and the Scottsboro boys are acquitted."
A third trial ended with the same result but a fourth in January, 1936, resulted in four of the men being acquitted. Lincoln Steffens, like many other journalists, continued with his campaign to free conviction. "No state in this union has a right to speak of justice as long as the most friendless Negro child accused of a crime receives less than the best defence that would be given its wealthiest white citizen."
Richard B. Moore, was another civil rights activist who campaigned for the men's release. In 1940 he argued: "The Scottsboro Case is one of the historic landmarks in the struggle of the American people and of the progressive forces throughout the world for justice, civil rights and democracy. In the present period, the Scottsboro Case has represented a pivotal point around which labor and progressive forces have rallied not only to save the lives of nine boys who were framed... but also against the whole system of lynching terror and the special oppression and persecution of the Negro people... Last year we came to a new development in the Scottsboro Case which shows more clearly than ever before the fascist nature of this case. Governor Graves (of Alabama) gave his pledged word to the Scottsboro Defense Committee and to leading Alabama citizens at a hearing to release the remaining Scottsboro boys." Four more of the men were released in the 1940s but the last prisoner, Andy Wright, had to wait until 9th June, 1950, before achieving his freedom. This was nineteen years and two months after his arrest in Alabama.
The nine men were finally pardoned in October, 1976. Only one of the men, Clarence Norris, who had spent 15 years in prison for the crime, was still alive. He commented when he heard the news: "I only wish the other eight boys could be here today. Their lives were ruined by this thing, too." In April 1977 the Alabama House Judiciary Committee rejected a proposal to pay Norris $10,000 in compensation for his time spent in prison. The last of the group, Clarence Norris, died in 1989.
On 20th November, 2013, Alabama’s parole board granted posthumous pardons for the three remaining members of the group who had yet to have their convictions rescinded, Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright. Sheila Washington, a Scottsboro resident who has led the campaign to pardon the men, told The Guardian that holding the three pardon certificates in her hand had been “joyous and sad at the same time. I feel like jumping up and down and rejoicing for them, because this is something they wanted in their lifetimes but it never happened.”