Mary Church Terrell

The Scottsboro Case - Ca. 1936

Mary Church Terrell
January 01, 1936
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The Scottsboro Case.

[ca 1936]

For five years the story of the Scottsboro Case is as follows has been attracting attention, not only in the United States, but practically all over the civilized world. Nine colored boys between the ages of thirteen and twenty were riding on a freight train starting from Chattanooga, Tennessee. They were all leaving homes of poverty, hunger and squalor hoping to find work to help their families. Olen Montgomery from Monroe, Georgia, was nearly blind. He was trying to reach a Memphis hospital which, he was told, would receive a colored boy and restore his eyesight.

On the same train, but in another car, were two white women wearing overalls and two white men, one of whom, Lester Carter, had just finished serving a chain gang sentence for vagrancy in Huntsville, Alabama. There he had met Victoria Price and Jack Tiller who was planning to leave his wife for her when the two had been arrested for “public lewdness.”

The white men began to amuse themselves by throwing sharp pebbles at the colored boys and stepping on their fingers. In the fight which followed the colored boys won and the white men jumped off the train. They walked to Stevenson, Alabama, the nearest town, and, fearing they would be arrested for vagrancy told a wild tale of “niggers” brandishing pistols and knoves and pushing them off the train. The policemen wired to stop the train and arrest them.”

When Paint Rock, Alabama was reached, practically the whole town was at the station armed with broom sticks, rifles and shot guns to seize the black desperadoes. The nine badly-frightened colored boys were roughly ragged from the train. As it pulled out somebody shouted “Here are two white women.” Have those black brutes harmed you?” they were asked. Victoria Price, realizing that her record was against her feared she would be arrested for vagrancy or something more serious, perhaps, and escaped this charge by accusing the boys of rape. The rumor spread like wild fire that nine Negroes had raped two white women, and cries of “Lynch them”, rang out.

The boys were put in jail in Scottsboro, Alabama and were indicted for rape. At the trial the jury found them guilty and eight of the boys were condemned to death. Roy Wright who was thirteen and did not look ten years old was sentenced to life imprisonment. Each of the boys protested his innocence. Dr. Bridges, who examined the women, was not allowed to testify. Not one of the men who jumped off the train was called to testify. They were all kept in jail. One man appointed by the court to defend the boys was too drunk to follow the case carefully.

Victoria Price described in language too foul to print how she had been ravished by six of the boys while the other three attacked Ruby Bates. But when Ruby testified she could not remember what Victoria had said and her story was sadly mixed. The prosecutor however, helped her make a case against the boys by asking questions to which she often replied by simply nodding her head. Later on Ruby Bates was so tortured by the thought that eight boys had been sentenced to death because she had unjustly accused them she wrote her boy friend a letter saying “Those boys never touched me.” But the police told her she would be put in jail if she did not sign a statement saying she was drunk when she wrote the letter. So Ruby signed.

At the second trial Ruby Bates bravely denied her testimony given at the first trial by saying repeatedly “Those boys never touched me.” She had gone to New York, seeking work, she said, had found it and asked Dr. Harry Fosdick of the Rockefeller Church to advise her what to do and she had followed his advice to tell the truth by returning to the South and testifying that the Scottsboro boys are innocent. Victoria Price’s story at the second trial differed materially from the testimony she gave at first. In the cross examination she was tangled in an ugly mess of contradictions. At that trial Lester Carter testified for the boys and related in detail how shamelessly Victoria Price had behaved both on the freight train and in the Scottsboro jail also.

After the third trial the United States Supreme Court handed down an unanimous decision that the death sentences imposed upon Haywood Patterson three times and upon Clarence Norris twice must be set aside and new trials excluded from the juries. When the jury officials tried to fool the world by writing in the names of colored men on the jury role to prove they were not excluded, the nine judges of the Supreme Court brushed aside precedent and agreed to see the original evidence. When this produced the forgery was evident.

The fourth Scottsboro trial which opened January wo, 1936 is said to have been the meanest travesty of justice of them all. Judge Callahan constantly burlesqued evidence, made venomous remarks repeatedly, interfered with the cross examination, bullied the defense attorneys, shouted at them and made faces at them. Gilley, the alleged eye witness, who would have been ground to death under the wheels of the train when he tried to jump off if he had not been pulled to safety by Haywood Patterson’s strong arm, was brought to the court room from a jail in Tennessee where he is serving a two year sentence for knocking two women down and robbing them. But he was not called to the stand.

For five years Haywood Patterson has been imprisoned. The sentence of death has been passed upon him four times. He has often been kept in solitary confinement and has spent countless sleepless nights on the concrete floors of Kilby death house. He has been bullied, baited and brutally beaten, but in pite of the cruel punishment his spirit has not yet been broken.

After the trial last January the nine boys were handcuffed in threes and leaded into three cars with armed deputies in each. On the way to the prison High Sheriff Sandlin shot Ozie Powell and wounded his head so badly that an outstanding specialist had to remove the shattered bullet. The sheriff claimed that the handcuffed boys fell upon him with knives and tried to escape from locked cars driven by armed deputies. But the two boys who were handcuffed to Ozie Powell declare that the sheriff goaded Ozie Powell by calling him & the others foul names, by bullying and threatening him. One of the sheriffs finall struck the boy. Then in an outburst of fury, despair and misery Ozie Powell grabbed a pocket knife and scratched the deputy’s face. Drop that knife”, t other boys called shouted at him pulled him back with their manacled hands. Then Sheriff Sandlin got out of the car, walked forward, walked back, took careful aim and fired a pistol in Ozie Powell’s face, Governor Bibb Graves congratulated the Sheriff for this deed. The grabd jury will will be asked to have indict Powell, Wright and Norris who were handcuffed in the care charging them with an attempt to murder.

To day these nine boys grown to manhood are sitting in cells accused of a crime which it would have been practically impossible for them to commit.

There is no evidence whatever that they were bad boys. They were simply riding a freight train trying to escape from the wretched, miserable condition under which they were forced to live. But they are victims of the traditions and customs of a section in which if a colored man is accused by a white woman it is practically impossible for him to prove his innocence no matter how strong, convicning and clear the evidence may be.

Terrell, Mary Church. “The Scottsboro Case.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. ca. 1938.