Who Were the Scottsboro Nine?Historians in the News
tags: racism, Scottsboro Boys, Alabama
On March 25, 1931, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, several black teenaged boys hopped aboard an Alabama-bound freight train where they encountered two young white women. At that time, under those circumstances, what followed—nine youths being wrongfully convicted of rape—was among one of the first times the world got to see what happened when African Americans encountered the criminal justice system.
“What you have is a tale of convenience that’s told because people of two races are found socializing together in the rural South, and that’s the only way that Jim Crow society can justify or explain what’s going on,” says Paul Gardullo, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Making false accusations against the African Americans youths, was “the way that those white women were encouraged to respond by wider society.”
In the end, the ordeal 90 years ago of those who became known as the Scottsboro Nine “became a touchstone because it provided a searing portrait of how black people were too often treated in America,” says Gardullo. Decades of injustice would follow and the nine young men would spend a combined total of 130 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. What happened in the case would create an enduring legacy. The African American fight for equal rights, harnessed through the media, in art, politics and protest, would capture the world's attention.
In his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land, Barack Obama recalls a passage in W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folks, which was published in 1903. Obama wrote that Du Bois defined black Americans as the “perpetual ‘Other,’ always on the outside looking in . . . defined not by what they are but by what they can never be.”
Rape charges, in particular, fit a pattern. There has been “a myth of black predation on white women when the reality was the polar opposite. . . . black men, women and children were degraded and often victimized and particularly black women were raped, and worse, by white men for generations, under slavery,” Gardullo says.
The Scottsboro Nine’s case, however, became a moment showing that despite their status as outsiders, black Americans could carry their calls for justice across the nation and around the globe. The journey through the judicial system of nine defendants included more trials, retrials, convictions and reversals than any other case in U.S. history, and it generated two groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court cases.
Some historians view it as a spark that fired the mid-20th century civil rights movement. While the Scottsboro Nine wore the faces that represented a great tragedy, their survival represented “an opportunity for people to meditate on how this injustice could be rectified,” says Gardullo.
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