The “Scottsboro Boys,” 1931.(Donated by Corbis)

In 1931, nine Black teens riding a freight train north toward Memphis, Tennessee, were arrested after being falsely accused of raping two white women. After nearly being lynched, they were brought to trial in Scottsboro, Alabama. Despite evidence that exonerated the teens — including a retraction by one of their accusers — the state pursued the case. All-white juries delivered guilty verdicts and all nine defendants, except the youngest, were sentenced to death. From 1931 to 1937, during a series of appeals and new trials, they languished in Alabama’s Kilby prison, where they were repeatedly brutalized by guards.

In 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in Powell v. Alabama that the Scottsboro defendants had been denied adequate counsel at trial. In 1935, the Court in Norris v. Alabama again ruled in favor of the defendants, overturning their convictions because Alabama had systematically excluded Black people from jury service.

Finally, in 1937, four of the defendants were released and five given sentences from 20 years to life; four of those were released on parole between 1943 and 1950. The fifth escaped prison in 1948 and fled to Michigan. Clarence Norris walked out of Kilby Prison after being paroled in 1946 and moved north; he received a full pardon from Governor George Wallace in 1976.