Shelia Washington is a sterling example of how a dedicated, passionate citizen can repair gaping wounds in history and law.
Washington died last month, but not before fulfilling a self-assigned mission. She accepted that mission at the age of 17, when, as a native of Scottsboro, Alabama, she found a book hidden under a mattress at her home while she was doing some cleaning. Her stepfather told her to hand it over. “You don’t need to know about that,” he said. “Just keep quiet about this now.” The book was “Scottsboro Boy,” a 1950 memoir by Haywood Patterson, an innocent young man who was convicted four times by all-white juries and sentenced to death three times.
Washington did not obey her stepfather. To the contrary, Washington set out to obtain posthumous justice for the nine young black men known as The Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. They were subjected to many trials at the height of the Jim Crow era, two reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. The ugly story of the Scottsboro Boys became the country’s most sensational civil rights case up to that point. Their tragic story later inspired feature films, documentaries, a Broadway musical, and was a factor in shaping the plot of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Yet how many Americans today can tell you anything about The Scottsboro Boys?
The nine Scottsboro Boys were Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams and brothers Andrew and Roy Wright, ranging in age from 13 to 19. None was from Alabama; just four of them even knew each other when they hopped a freight train on March 25, 1931, seeking work in other cities as the Great Depression raged.
The free riders got into an altercation with a group of white hobos. Several of the white men left the train in Scottsboro, and told authorities they had been attacked by “niggers.”
A posse met the train at its next stop and arrested the nine teens. First they were charged with with assault, but two young white women on the train said they had also been assaulted by the group. That was enough for all nine of the black teens to be charged with rape. They were locked up the county jail in Scottsboro, then with a population of 2,300, and almost lynched by a white mob. The National Guard had to be called out to protect them.
All nine of the Scottsboro Boys were convicted of rape within 15 days, and eight were sentenced to death. Only Roy Wright, 13, was not condemned, and that was because a single juror held out. The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (with Clarence Darrow as a consultant) came to the group’s rescue. They obtained a U.S. Supreme Court decision that the nine did not receive necessary legal counsel in their original trials, so new trials were held in Decatur, Alabama., about 60 miles from Scottsboro. This time there was national media coverage and Samuel Leibowitz, a renowned defense attorney, handled the cases. (That’s him on the far left in the photo below.)
One of the two alleged rape victims recanted her accusation, but it wasn’t enough. When the jury pronounced Haywood Patterson guilty and sentenced him to die as his first jury had, Judge James Horton rejected the verdict and canceled the other trials, ruling that the nine defendants could not receive justice in northern Alabama.
Attempts to convict the nine continued for years, leading to another landmark SCOTUS case, Norris v. Alabama. That 1935 decision held that black defendants could not receive equal protection under the law if black jurors were prohibited from serving.
Eventually, after a decade of trying to convict them on non-existent evidence, the state dropped rape charges against four of the Scottsboro Boys. Four were convicted of rape, and one was convicted of assaulting a deputy with a knife. In 1976, Alabama Gov. George Wallace pardoned Norris, who was the last surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys. He died in 1989.
By the time Shelia found Patterson’s book, the episode was something Scottsboro wanted to forget. She wanted the town and everyone else, to remember. Beginning in the early 1990s, she set out to commemorate the Scottsboro Boys and do what she could to make sure the lessons of the terrible sequence of events were learned. After years of fundraising, speaking and acquiring artifacts, Shelia Washington finally opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. Then she set out to obtain pardons for Patterson, Weems and Andy Wright, the members of the group who had never been pardoned after spending years in prison.
A bill was required because posthumous pardons could not be granted by the governor. Washington personally lobbied members of both houses of the state legislature, which unanimously passed two bills in 2013. One authorized the pardons, and the other granted full exoneration to Patterson, Weems and Wright. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed the bill granting the pardons at the Scottsboro Boys Museum.