Ethics Hero Emeritus: Shelia Washington, 1960-2021

Shelia Washington

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.)

Scottsdale boys

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.

Mission accomplished!

9 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Shelia Washington, 1960-2021

  1. I had never heard this story. I just read all the wiki on it. It’s pretty interesting. In the first trial it says both Patterson and Norris “witnessed” the rape, but they were not part of it.

    I find Judge Horton to be both hero and villian.

    There is this: He (Irwin Craig) was called in to see the judge presiding over that retrial, James Horton, who exhorted him to change his vote to guilty. “If you don’t, they will kill you, Red”, said the judge. Craig protested: “I can’t change my vote, judge.” Horton replied: “Don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it.”

    Then there was this: udge Horton heard arguments on the motion for a new trial in the Limestone County Court House in Athens, Alabama, where he read his decision to the astonished defense and a furious Knight:
    These women are shown … to have falsely accused two Negroes … This tendency on the part of the women shows that they are predisposed to make false accusations … The Court will not pursue the evidence any further.

  2. As a woman, my worst nightmare has always been the fear of sexual assault. I’ve seen firsthand the horrendous damage it has done to family & friends who have survived it. Rape is one crime that is among the hardest to overcome…those who survive frequently spend their lives re-living the trauma, the violence, the shame, and the violation. It’s unlike any other type of crime. And I’ve always believed that since sexual predators can very rarely be rehabilitated, they should receive the same sentence that a survivor of their crime does…life. I believe that serial offenders, esp those who commit these crimes against children, should receive the death penalty. So that’s my stance…
    …and that said…this new-ish declaration by the woke that all women should be believed, at face value? That doesn’t sit well with me, either. And this idea that in high school & college situations where drinking is high and consent is blurry- that somehow only the man is ever responsible? That it’s solely up to the guy to have personal responsibility? Why?!? This concept brought forth by so called feminists that all men are evil, scary, threatening predators is horrific. I can’t imagine being a man in today’s society, especially a straight, white male. My husband (who is a 30-something straight white male) couldn’t even fathom YELLING at a woman, much less raising a hand to one or forcing unwanted sexual activity. He finds domestic and sexual violence absolutely abhorrent…but God forbid a hashtag like #NotAllMen goes up. To the woke, it’s like saying #AllLivesMatter. Same reaction, same disdain & vitriol.
    Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? What happened to proof/evidence/establishing motives/past history/character testimonies? Seems as though those things have been buried under an agenda that no longer seems clear, other than one created by vengeful, vocal people hell bent on destroying lives.
    Those poor young men involved in the Scottsboro travesty deserved so much better. Thank God for heroes/heroines out there like Shelia Washington. God bless her for all that she did in her life to right a terrible wrong.
    More than anything, this country needs a return to sanity. We have to stop whitewashing history because we have to use history to learn from our mistakes. We have to stop declaring entire groups of people (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, and political views) as enemies of society.
    I just want people in this beautiful country to remember kindness and basic human decency. And maybe take an old-fashioned civics class and learn a thing or two about our country’s political ideology, our Founding Fathers, our real history (unvarnished, often ignorant, and ugly though it may be), and start thinking for themselves. If that happened in large enough numbers, with brave people like Ms. Washington coming forward and standing up for their beliefs and for what’s right, maybe we’d have a real chance.

    • We have to stop declaring entire groups of people (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, and political views) as enemies of society.

      Was there a civilization in the past one hundred years that declared an entire group of people enemies of society?

  3. I first heard about the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1980s when I was living in Chattanooga. I learned about the affair from an odd tangent; one of my fellow railroad history buffs told me about the alleged events occurring on a train which had just left Chattanooga. I found Dan Carter’s “The Scottsboro Boys: A Tragedy of the American South” in the local library and read that book and everything else I could find about the case, including extensive reporting on the trials by the Chattanooga Times. I mentioned the book to several attorney friends and found that most of them were unfamiliar with the case. Incidents such as this should certainly be remembered and Ms. Washington is indeed an ethics hero for persisting in her efforts to secure the pardons and establish the museum. I would like to go see it.

  4. In Athens Alabama, where I reside, we erected a statue of Judge Horton and a memorial to that trial on the front lawn of our Limestone County Courthouse.

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