Last Updated on January 10, 2023
Celebrities including Albert Einstein and actor James Cagney wrote letters and signed petitions supporting them. Langston Hughes wrote four poems and a one-act play about their plight. Blues musician Lead Belly honored them in song. There was no Scottsboro Boys Museum at this time.
Their case inspired the writing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” to an extent.
The Scottsboro Boys were headline news around the country in 1931, but today, most Americans have never heard about the nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train during the depths of the Great Depression. Hastily tried by an all-white jury, eight of the nine were sentenced to death, the youngest, a 13-year-old, given life in prison. That would have been their fate if not for the firestorm of attention the case received and legal intervention on the boys’ behalf first by the American Communist Party and later the NAACP and ACLU.
Appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where their guilty verdicts were twice overturned. The state continued to reindict. Despite their innocence, the nine spent a total of 102 years in prison before being freed.
What was the Scottsboro Case?
The complex story of how nine young African Americans became a symbol for economic and racial oppression and an international phenomenon is told at the Scottsboro Boys Museum in the small northeastern Alabama town of the same name. Having closed at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, the museum stayed shut until November of 2022 while undergoing an extensive renovation and redesign and the untimely death of its executive director.
“The original iteration of the Scottsboro Boys Museum was all spirit, but not much content. The displays and exhibits were arranged in a slipshod and haphazard manner with no logical flow,” Scottsboro Boys Museum designer and interim director Thomas Reidy told Forbes.com. “Posters and framed photographs were tacked onto the walls; some older newspapers and magazine covers were displayed in a glass case; a copy of trial transcripts sat on a fold-out table with a copy of a photo of the defense lawyer; a bookshelf with books about Scottsboro stood near the bathroom entrance. Yet the director and museum founder Shelia Washington had such a compelling personal story and such a passion for the case that she was able to take what little was there and somehow make a museum out of it.”
Clearing out the Joyce Chapel which houses the museum and essentially starting over from scratch, 24 informational reader panels of varying sizes have been placed throughout the revitalized museum. The former choir/altar area presents a tableau recreating a trial scene using mannequins of Haywood Patterson (defendant) and Victoria Price (alleged victim), and pop-up images of leading figures in the case. The parking lot has yet to be paved, that’s in the plans, but it’s what’s inside that matters most.
The updated presentation “places this seminal moment in the context of the modern civil rights movement,” Reidy explains. “We like our guests to think about what it was like to be a Black teenager in 1931. We want them to read and discover the many racial and gender driven mythologies. They will look at exhibits concerning Jim Crow, poverty, sharecropping, convict leasing, etc. before they even get into the arrests and the trials.”
How come the Scottsboro Boys are largely unknown today?
“One reason, I believe, has to do with the alignment of the case with Communist International. The legal arm of Comintern (Internal Labor Defense) represented the nine through the first several trials and only in 1934 did it join forces with the NAACP then later the ACLU,” Reidy said. “The Scottsboro Boys case grew to become a contest over competing visions on how to achieve racial and socio-economic equality here in the U.S. The ILD saw Blacks as part of a new world-wide labor force that would show allegiance to communist ideology and eventually be soldiers for economic and political revolution. The NAACP looked to use existing American institutions to create opportunities for Blacks within its capitalistic structure.”
As the case drug on, World War II took headlines away. Following the War, the United States was not only gripped by racism and Jim Crow, but the Red Scare as well.
“During the 50s and 60s, white segregationists and supremacists tried to stigmatize Black civil rights activists with the label of being communists,” Reidy said. “Civil rights leaders did everything they could to disassociate themselves with these labels and that likely meant that the Scottsboro case was not very useful to them. American historians writing textbooks during the Cold War era steered away from the case as well.”
In this story, the communists are the good guys. The defenders of equality, rule of law, fairness and humanity. That doesn’t play well in America, especially not in mid-20th century, flag-waving, “kill a commie for Mommy,” Cold War America.
With Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmett Till and Freedom Riders and church bombings, there were no shortage of examples and spokespeople to demonstrate America’s racial inequality and advocate on its behalf without dropping the Molotov cocktail of communism into the conversation. The Scottsboro Boys were forgotten.
That is changing. Importantly, the case increasingly appears in secondary school textbooks and college history classes according to Reidy. A precarious position considering the country’s backwards lurch in many quarters toward renewed denials of its barbaric history of racial terror and systemic racism. With classrooms and school board meetings now on the front lines of America’s culture war, right wing hysteria over a so-called “woke agenda,” Critical Race Theory, book bans, the Scottsboro Boys case, and whether this nation chooses to teach it or hide it, exemplifies the ongoing struggle between history told as unvarnished truth or whitewashed propaganda.
“Knowing their story helps us understand the problems facing our Black communities today,” Reidy believes. “Many of the obstacles the nine faced still challenge minority groups. Jim Crow is not dead: he echoes loudly on far-right websites and on certain conservative news networks. Black males continue to be arrested at higher rates than the general population and receive longer prison sentences. They are exponentially more likely to be disenfranchised. Teenaged Black males especially need to worry about being in ‘the wrong place at the wrong time’ and are more likely to be accidentally misidentified and falsely accused in a capital case. Blacks today, on average, earn less money and experience higher unemployment rates than whites, just as in 1931. Inferior education then and now puts teenaged Blacks at severe disadvantage. Scottsboro reminds us of the work still left to do.”
Civil Rights Trail
The Scottsboro Boys Museum represents one of more than 100 sites across 15 southern states comprising the United States Civil Rights Trail. Over 30 locations can be found in Alabama alone from the 16th Street Baptist Church where four Black girls were murdered by white supremacists in a dynamite blast to the “Bloody Sunday” Edmund Pettus Bridge and Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
The Civil Rights Trail evolved from President Barack Obama urging the National Park Service in 2007 to create more diversity within the system and among the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Vision met reality in 2017 when Lee Sentell, Director of the Alabama Tourism Department and author of “The Official Civil Rights Trail” (2021, Alabama Media Group), reached out to Georgia State University researchers asking them to identify locations across the region which would meet World Heritage Site minimum qualifications.
GSU came back with a list of 60; southern state tourism officials added their picks and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail featuring 105 cultural sites and 15 National Park Service units was announced.
Stretching from Topeka, KS and Wilmington, DE to Sarasota and Vero Beach, FL, the trail highlights stories and individuals well known like the Greensboro, N.C. Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins and Muhammad Ali, to those little known, like Robert Russa Morton High School and Fannie Lou Hamer. Big Cities–Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Washington, D.C.–small towns–Summerton, SC, Simpsonville, KY, Ruleville, MS.
“What happened here changed the world” serves as the slogan for the Civil Rights Trail. Exploring the trail will change visitors as well.