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Landmark Trials - The Scottsboro Boys

May 22, 2013

By Jeff Grillo, Associate Director for Technical Services


Are you familiar with the Scottsboro Boys? Perhaps you recall a former high school teacher or a college professor referencing these nine teenagers and their landmark trials. Maybe you read about the trials recently in the news. Set in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931, the story of “The Scottsboro Boys,” as they came to be called, included accusations of gang rape and contained powerful racial overtones. The racial overtones stemmed from a real-life drama involving alleged white victims, reputed black perpetrators, and an initially all-white jury trial.


For decades, these sensational trials have stimulated the minds of scholars, inducing various legal and social discussions and raising many important issues. The trials raised countless questions and dealt with issues of the defendants’ right to a fair trial and overt racism. Were the alleged perpetrators wrongfully accused? Were the purported victims fabricating the crime story? What brought about an attempted lynching of the eventual defendants? These issues and questions provoked increased scrutiny and in-depth examination.
Significantly adding to the drama, the Scottsboro Boys endured several hurried trials, death sentence convictions, appeals, upheld convictions, and retrials. Subsequent questions arose regarding the speed by which the initial trials progressed. Were the trials too hasty and the judicial rulings careless? Did the accused boys have proper legal representation? Was the trial venue fair? Should the youngest defendant, only thirteen at the time, have had the right to be tried as a juvenile? Were the legal proceedings, at their very core, just or unjust?
Over the years, the Scottsdale trials piqued the interest of authors, playwrights, filmmakers, sociologists, historians, and legal scholars. The story of the Scottsdale Boys likely inspired Harper Lee’s fictional novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The trials also became the subject of a 1976 Emmy-winning TV movie, Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, and a 2000 PBS documentary titled Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.
A number of scholarly works have recounted and analyzed these seminal trials, often focusing on their key players. If you are interested in reading more about these nine teenage boys, their alleged victims, the whirlwind trials and media circus, the involvement of the Communist Party and the NAACP, and the trials’ connection with the Civil Rights Movement, come to the Biddle Law Library! Borrow a book or two. Read it on the train or while sitting in the park to eat your lunch. To get started, peruse the library catalog or consult a reference librarian about the best sources.
Biddle owns several books and movies on the Scottsboro saga. A quick keyword search in LOLA using either “Scottsboro Boys” or “Scottsboro Trials” will put you on the right path. The library also provides links to PDF journal articles and other electronic resources