The trial of nine black teens accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931 sparked an epic legal battle that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling and a provocative Broadway musical.
Actor Forrest McClendon, whose performance in “The Scottsboro Boys” earned him a Tony Award nomination in 2011, joined Professor Donald Tibbs and Professor Kevin Woodson for a roundtable discussion of the historic case and the play on Feb. 7.
The case unfolded amidst the lynch-mob mentality of the Jim Crow South, when the rape of a white women was “one of the more horrific crimes” of which a black man could find himself accused, Tibbs said.
“African American men could be lynched for even looking at a white woman the wrong way,” Tibbs said at the event, sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Black Law Students Association, the Jewish Law Student Association and the Federalist Society.
The conviction of the nine teens, who received negligible legal representation, attracted the attention of the Communist Party, which arranged for an aggressive criminal defense attorney to handle their appeals.
To the communists, the case offered a platform for political propaganda, Woodson said, adding that the NAACP – at the time led by wealthy blacks and influential whites – faced criticism for staying on the sidelines.
“The defendants were illiterate vagrants,” Woodson explained. “This is not the kind of case they took on.”
Eventually, Powell v. Alabama went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the convictions, finding that the teens had been deprived effective counsel guaranteed under the Constitution.
But the high court sent the case back to Alabama to be retried, and bigotry continued to roil, allowing the miscarriage of justice to persist.
Telling the story through a minstrel show that featured racially charged humor made audiences “uncomfortable” and itself sparked outrage. McClendon said.
Tibbs credited ACS President Mike Doneson for leading the effort to organize the discussion.
“This is one of the most celebrated cases,” Tibbs said. “Students know the outcome. But a lot of them don’t know the history of why that case came to be.”