The “Scottsboro Boys” case involved nine African-American teenage boys who were falsely accused of raping two White women in rural Alabama back in 1931. Eight of the boys were charged and sentenced to death, setting off a firestorm of protests and ongoing legal battles that lasted for years. The odds were stacked against the boys, who had to face an all-White jury, a lynching attempt, angry mobs, and other injustices. With the help of the American Communist Party, the case was appealed. One of the first boys to be tried, Clarence “Willie” Norris (pictured below), was pardoned by Gov. George Wallace in 1976 – but not before the case shattered the lives of the group completely.
The Scottsboro Boys literally had no hope, even with the falsified claims. Racism in the South was the reality they faced, and many Whites in the state were possessed with a bloodthirsty focus to punish the boys either way. After a third trial in the lower courts, charges were dropped for four of the defendants with sentences for the rest ranging between 75 years to capital punishment. Just two of the boys served time in prison, with two of the group escaping and later returning to jail after committing crimes. Norris, the oldest of the boys and the only one sentenced to death, was paroled in 1944 and moved to New York.
The move was a violation of his parole, and thus, he was sent back to prison. Paroled a second time in 1946, he made his return to New York and didn’t fare well in the job market until he reached out to his former lawyer Samuel Leibowitz who represented him and the rest of the Scottsboro teens.
He finally was able to get a job with his attorney’s help and eventually reached out to the NAACP to see if he would be able to obtain a pardon. With the NAACP’s help — by way of an aggressive campaign — the infamously racist George Wallace granted Norris a pardon in 1976.
Watch the Scottsboro Boys’ story here:
In 1979, Norris helped to pen a book detailing his experiences as a result of the case. “The Last Of The Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography” was released in 1979. Clarence Norris died in January of 1989 in New York; he was 76 years of age.
The case and its staggering legacy lives on in a variety of mediums such as the film “Heavens Fall,” featuring Timothy Hutton, and was the subject of a 2001 Oscar-nominated documentary. A careful study of the case reveals that racial tensions in the South were not only at a fever pitch, but could also prove deadly even in the court of law. Although Norris received his just due, the trials he endured along the way and struggles to acclimate in to society could never be erased.