Catalyst for a Movement

“The lesson to black people, to my children, to everybody, is that you should always fight for your rights, even if it costs you your life. Stand up for your rights, even if it kills you. That’s all that life consists of.”

– Clarence Norris after his pardon in 1976

Initially, the NAACP was reluctant to champion the Scottsboro Boys’ case. The organization was barely solvent after the Great Depression and had limited resources in the South; Secretary Walter White did not want to harm the Association’s hard-earned reputation or alienate its powerful political and philanthropic allies on behalf of nine uneducated teenagers. They hoped to keep their involvement quiet and work behind the scenes to help the youths by retaining Clarence Darrow, the nation’s foremost attorney. However, after the deeply unpopular Communist Party threw the spotlight onto the Boys’ story using aggressive tactics that alienated the very Southerners the NAACP hoped to recruit, the organization entered the fray. Their more measured and slow response was met by furious disapproval from Langston Hughes, who chose to publish his Scottsboro poems in Communist papers in response. It also alienated the Boys’ parents, who instead put their trust in the Communists and convinced their sons to retain the ILD as counsel. As the trials wore on and they found more support, the NAACP took on a more public role.

Seeing an opportunity to promote their party’s ideas, the Communist Party built an intense grassroots movement to save the Scottsboro Boys. They encouraged meetings, rallies, marches, postcard and letter-writing campaigns and a heavy presence in the black neighborhoods of Northern cities through the black press and churches. They took the Boys’ mothers on a national and international publicity tour, aggressive tactics which thrust the story into the national spotlight. An overflowing letter campaign from ordinary citizens all over the country, that included impassioned pleas from Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells and Albert Einstein, overwhelmed the Alabama officials after the first trials. Public response to the Communist Party’s tactics were divided: some thought their loud and brash tactics were helpful, and others found them harmful as they infuriated the Southerners who saw them as radicals.

Save the Scottsboro Boys button

Save the Scottsboro Boys button printed by the ILD.

Upon the second trial’s guilty verdicts, with the aid of the mainstream press, the demonstrations became more widespread and took a newly political turn. Twenty-four hours after the verdict, over twenty-five thousand people sent telegrams to the governor of Alabama. Three thousand gathered at New York’s Penn Station to meet defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz at the train. Four thousand people heard him speak at Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. Ten thousand went to Union Square to hear Janie Patterson, Haywood Patterson’s mother, speak.

March at Washington DC

Scottsboro Boys march in Washington, D.C.

On May 8, 1933 four thousand marchers converged on Washington, DC. Among them was accuser Ruby Bates, who by then had recanted her story. She marched alongside Janie Patterson and Ada Wright, Andy and Roy Wright’s mother. When the marchers reached the White House, President Franklin Roosevelt refused to meet with them, insisting this was a state issue rather than a federal one. They presented a petition signed by 145,000 people as they were turned away.

ILD march to save the Scottsboro Boys

ILD rally in support of the Scottsboro Boys.

The media and these grassroots efforts were largely influential in educating Northerners about the Jim Crow South. The constant headlines from the trials turned the Boys into a symbol of American injustice, forcing their story into the spotlight and people’s consciousness. The length of their imprisonment and the number of their trials over several years constantly kept them in the news. The two Supreme Court verdicts affirmed every person’s right to a due process and a fair trial under the Fourteenth Amendment.