On March 25, 1931, during the Depression, nine young men who had hitched a ride in a freight car to find work hauling logs on the river in Memphis, Tenn., were accused of rape, thus beginning a lifetime of trials and tragedy.
The boys, along with a group of White youth, were riding in a Southern Railroad freight car on its way from Chattanooga.
A fight between the two groups broke out, and the victorious Black youth forced the White youth off the train. The White youth reported the “assault” to the stationmaster who wired ahead and a posse stopped the train in Paint Rock, Ala.
Two White female riders on the train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, claimed to have been raped by “12 Black boys.”
The Black youth were jailed and a mob gathered in hopes of lynching them, but the governor signed an order to keep the imprisoned youth alive.
Nevertheless, they were convicted of rape and sentenced to death during a trial in Scottsboro. But with the help of the NAACP and the International Labor Defense, the boys were retried. In front of an all-White jury, the boys were found guilty again. However, results of the second trial were thrown out because one of the women recanted, saying the rape story was fabricated. The judge annulled the verdict, allowing the boys to face a third trial, this time with one Black juror. Again, the verdict was guilty.
Eventually, charges against four of the nine were dropped. Sentences for the rest ranged from 75 years to life. All but two served prison time.
One was shot by a prison guard, two escaped, but were sent back to prison.
Clarence Norris, the oldest of the group and the only one sentenced to death, was pardoned by George Wallace in 1976. He published a book on his experiences. The last surviving Scottsboro boy died in 1989.