Langston Hughes’s Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse was published in 1932 by The Golden Stair Press of New York. It was written in response to a legal case, a miscarriage of justice, a notorious and infamous example of injustice in the Jim Crow South . . . that appeared again in the news this week.
On 25 March 1931, nine young black men, aged 12 to 19 were removed from a freight train by police and arrested at Paint Rock, Alabama. The authorities had been alerted by a group of young white men who, after a confrontation with the black teenagers aboard the train, had been forced off near Stevenson, Alabama. Two young white women, mill workers from Huntsville, were also taken from the train at Paint Rock. When in the custody of the police, the two women reported that they had been raped aboard the train by the young black men. A mob gathered that first evening in Scottsboro, but Alabama’s governor, Benjamin Miller, ordered the National Guard to prevent the mob from lynching the young men.
Twelve days later, what became known as the trials of the Scottsboro Boys began. The defendants—Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozzie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wright—were divided into four groups, and four separate trials were held. Five days later, eight of the nine had been convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries. Roy Wright, the youngest of the nine, had been found guilty, but only eleven of the twelve jurors voted for the death penalty, even though the prosecution had requested a sentence of life-in-prison. Executions were scheduled for 10 July, the earliest possible date, according to law.
That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
—Langston Hughes, from Scottsboro Limited
Over the next seven years a series of trials occurred that involved state and federal courts. Twice, cases were appealed before the U.S. Supreme Court. In November 1932 the Court ordered new trials for all the defendants, ruling that the right of the defendants to retain competent legal counsel under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause had been denied by Alabama. In Haywood Patterson’s second trial, which took place in April 1933, Ruby Bates testified that she and Victoria Price had made up the accusations of rape to deflect attention from their own violations of the law. Physical evidence was also introduced that lent credence to the testimony that no rape had taken place. Patterson was again found guilty and sentenced to death.
In April 1935, the Court, hearing arguments in the Patterson and Norris cases, held that the system of jury selection in Alabama that excluded African-Americans was unconstitutional. Convictions were again reversed. The state chose again to prosecute, and by January 1936, Haywood Patterson’s fourth trial had begun. He was again convicted and given a 75-year sentence. After testifying at the trial, Ozie Powell was shot in the head by a sheriffs deputy while riding in the backseat of a car following an argument between the two men and an attack by Powell with a penknife that seriously injured the deputy. Powell was handcuffed to Clarence Norris and Roy Wright at the time. Though he survived, Powell was seriously disabled. The sheriff said that Powell was trying to escape.
The poem, “Scottsboro” was first published in the December 1931 issue of Opportunity:
8 Black Boys in a Southern Jail.
World, turn pale!
8 Black Boys and one white lie.
Is it much to die? . . .
Hughes spent much of the fall of 1931 writing about the Scottsboro case and visited Kilby Prison in Montgomery where eight of the nine young men were held in early 1932. His short verse drama, “Scottsboro, Limited,” had first been published in the October 1931 issue of New Masses and then republished in 1932, along with his four Scottsboro poems and illustrations by Prentiss Taylor in the Golden Stair Press edition (a copy of which is displayed here and is among the holdings at Special Collections). The play opened in Los Angeles in 1932 and was later performed in Paris and Moscow. Writing in The Cambridge History of African American Literature, Nicole Walingora-Davis describes the play in the following terms:
Hughes offers a caustic description of the collusion of the court with mob violence in Scottsboro, Limited. His compactly staged trial sequence captures the lethal efficiency of the Jim Crow court. By eliminating the prosecutor, defense attorney, and any evidence, and by interpolating the audience into the jury, Hughes stresses the cumulative effect of the procedural irregularities that marred the Jim Crow court: here the Judge presupposed the defendants’ guilt—the female plaintiffs testimony only confirms his presumption. Hughes’s concluding call to interracial solidarity and a revolutionary labor movement among black and white laborers functioned like an anthem in his writings, and sought to promote social and economic justice.
By the time Clarence Norris’s third trial began on 12 July 1937, seven of the Scottsboro nine had been in prison for six years. By Wednesday of that week, Norris was again sentenced to death. Next to be tried was Andy Wright, who received a sentence of ninety-nine years. Charles Weems, whose sentence was delivered on 24 July, was given seventy-five years. Also that summer, all charges against Willie Robertson, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright, the youngest of the group, were dropped. The five others remained in Alabama prisons. Weems was paroled in 1943. Powell and Norris in 1946. After a parole violation, Andy Wright received parole in 1950. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948, and, after publishing a book while still a fugitive, was arrested by the FBI in 1950. The governor of Michigan refused Alabama’s request for extradition. Clarence Norris published his own book, The Last of the Scottbsoro Boys, in 1979. He died ten years later, truly the last of the group of nine, on 23 January 1989.
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But this post started by saying that the Scottsboro Boys were back in the news. Indeed. On 19 April 2013, the Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, signed House Joint Resolution 20, passed by the Alabama legislature on 4 April. The resolution formally exonerates all nine of the Scottsboro Boys. The signing ceremony was held at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.
“It’s important to clear the names of the Scottsboro Boys,” Governor Bentley said in a statement. “This is the result of a bipartisan, cooperative effort, and I appreciate everyone who worked together to make this legislation a reality.”
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard added, “The Legislature’s unanimous passage of this important legislation and Governor Bentley’s signature show that today’s Alabama is far removed from the one that caused such pain for so many so long ago.”