Be Proactive, Not Retroactive
On March 25, 1931, nine African American males, Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olden Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams and brothers Andrew and Leroy Wright boarded a train to Memphis in search of a better life. The males ranged from age 12 to 19 according to Huffington Post Black Voices.
According to the African American Encyclopedia, while on the train, a young White passenger claimed that a group of African American passengers had tossed him from the train. A call was placed to arrest all African Americans on the train. When deputies boarded the train, two White women Ruby Bates and Victoria Price claimed to have been gang raped by a group of Black men.
The nine males, later nicknamed the Scottsboro Boys, were immediately arrested in Paint Rock, Ala., with calls for an immediate lynching by local residents.
Although medical experts said that there was no evidence of gang rape and Bates and Price gave shaky and embellished testimony, eight out of nine young males were convicted and sentenced to death.
Later, it was reported that Bates and Price had worked as prostitutes in Chattanooga, Tenn. Bates later recanted her story under oath.
Many claim that the Scottsboro trial ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement. Although justice was initially denied to the nine defendants in the Scottsboro trial, Alabama state officials are attempting to posthumously exonerate the young males involved in the Scottsboro trial.
While this is a respectable effort by Alabama, posthumous pardons are only ceremonial and more effort should be made to ensure that men wrongfully accused of rape do not lose years of their life because society views them as “guilty until proven innocent.”
Obviously, rape is a serious allegation and serious problem that deserves serious attention.
However, too often we see men accused of rape and seemingly convicted in the court of public opinion without much evidence to prove the allegations.
From the Duke University lacrosse players, to Tupac Shakur, to Kobe Bryant to most recently Case McCoy and Jordan Hicks of the Texas Longhorns football team, men accused of rape are usually punished before they are convicted of the crime and that must stop.
Although the racial element of the Scottsboro trial made it impossible for the Scottsboro Boys to get a fair trial, there is virtually no difference between the allegations of Bates and Price than that of Crystal Mangum who lied about being raped in 2006 by former Duke lacrosse players David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann.
Unfortunately, some women make up claims of sexual abuse because of their own personal demons, and sometimes bad evidence and mistakes lead to the wrong men being punished for crimes they did not commit or crimes that did not happen.
In 2007, Regal Magazine reported that approximately 77 percent of wrongful rape convictions resulted from mistaken identity. Approximately two-thirds involved faulty scientific evidence. Almost one-fourth involved false confessions or incriminating statements and another 15 percent involved incorrect information from informants, based on data provided by the Associated Press.
After being exonerated of raping Mangum, Seligmann said: “This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If it’s possible for law enforcement officials to systematically railroad us with no evidence whatsoever, it is frightening to think what they could do to those who do not have the resources to defend themselves.”
After several mistrials, appeals and retrials, Patterson was eventually sentenced to 75 years; Norris’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison; Andrew Wright and Weems were sentenced to 99 years; charges were dropped against Montgomery, Leroy Wright, Roberson and Williams, and charges were also dropped against Powell, although he pleaded guilty to assaulting an officer in an escape attempt and was sentenced to 20 years, according to The African American Encyclopedia.
While posthumous pardons and apologies are warranted, the legacy of those involved in the Scottsboro trial should not be simply that Alabama admits to its history of racial bigotry and apologizes.
The legacy of the Scottsboro Boys should be that even those accused of rape are innocent until proven guilty, and they should not be punished simply because of an allegation, with no evidence.
Unfortunately, that legacy has yet to be fulfilled.