Guilty Until Proven Innocent | The Scottsboro Boys Cases

Mr. Beat is a social studies teacher who specializes in making history and geography more engaging

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In episode 47 of Supreme Court Briefs, it's the story of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine African American teenage boys who were falsely accused of raping two white women. #supremecourtbriefs #scottsboroboys #apush

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Produced by Matt Beat. All images by Matt Beat, found in the public domain, or used under fair use guidelines. Music by Drew Gerber. Thanks to John Crow for restoring and colorizing old photos for this video.

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Jackson County, Alabama

March 25, 1931

African American teenage boys get into a fight with six white teenage boys on a freight train they all illegally hitched a ride on. After the fight, the six white males were kicked off the train because they had apparently started it. Well them boys didn’t like that so much, so they went to the sheriff in the nearby town of Paint Rock to say they were assaulted.

The sheriff got together a mob of people and ordered the train stopped and every African American on board arrested. Yep, they really did arrest every African American on that train. Eventually, they were able to narrow down the suspects to nine boys. The nine were Clarence Norris, age 19. Charlie Weems, age 19. Andy Wright, age 19. Haywood Patterson, age 18. Olin Montgomery, age 17. Ozie Powell, age 16. William Roberson, age 16. Eugene Williams, age 13, and Roy Wright, age 12. William could barely walk due to a severe case of syphilis. Andy and Roy were brothers, who had left their homes for the first time ever. Olin couldn’t see and was hoping to get a job to pay for some glasses. And Haywood, Haywood had ridden freight trains for so long that he claimed he could light a cigarette on top of a quickly moving one. Of these 9 boys, only four knew each other before getting arrested together.

While the boys were in custody, two white women who were also on that train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, approached authorities and claimed they had been raped by the boys after the white boys had been kicked off. A doctor examined Price and Bates for signs of rape, but did not find any. Historians have speculated that Price and Bates may have have told police they were raped to distract the police from looking at the fact that both had been involved with prostitution in Tennessee.

Regardless, after word got out about those charges, a rather large mob formed outside the jail. Due to the racism of the time and place, the mob automatically thought these black teenage boys were guilty. They demanded the boys be released to be lynched. The authorities did not release the boys. In fact, Sheriff Matt Wann actually stood in front of the jail blocking entrance, saying he would kill the first person to come through the door. The Alabama Army National Guard soon came to protect the jail.

The nine boys were later called the Scottsboro Boys since their case was first heard in nearby Scottsboro, Alabama. From the very beginning, the justice system made it so these boys were guilty until proven innocent. Before the trials, they were not allowed to seek legal counsel or even contact their families. The trials were completed in just four days. Each of those four days, a huge crowd of all spectators booed and hollered. The two lawyers who defended the boys were not given enough time to prepare for the case, and didn’t even give closing arguments. The only evidence considered was the testimony of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.

Five things, eh?

  1. I went in deep researching this video, and it easily could have been twice as long. While the story of the Scottsboro Boys is fascinating, tragic and must be remembered, it also got me thinking about all of the victims in similar circumstances who were not remembered simply because the media never paid the same attention.

  2. Thanks to my sponsor Ampeduplearning, who are fellow social studies teachers trying to make a living on the side with a wonderful resource. And since we all know how much teachers make, it'd be extra special if you checked out their site.

  3. A special shout out to my student in real life John, who restored and colorized old photographs of some of the Scottsboro Boys for this video.

  4. This video is demonetized since I talk about rape.

  5. My Discord server link:

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Comments (1)
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Philip Carino
Philip Carino

Good topic there Matt, seeing how this has been prevalent even today, reforming the criminal justice system is a priority. Trump has slammed the 1994 one, albeit for political reasons, but all I've read about it is great. Your thoughts?



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