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Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys Road_trip_car

Alabama Road Trip No. 51

Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys

by Lee Sentell

Take a 110-mile journey through scenic northeastern Alabama to visit train depots and courthouses in Stevenson, Scottsboro, Decatur and Athens, where the saga of the Scottsboro Boys case played out over seven years. It began the modern Civil Rights era. The chief hero was Judge James Edwin Horton Jr., who might have been the inspiration for Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, the courageous attorney she immortalized in To Kill a Mockingbird.

How the Saga Began

During the Depression, African-Americans and whites looking for work commonly traveled by hopping on freight trains. On March 25, 1931, two poor, white female cotton mill workers returning to Huntsville climbed aboard a Southern Railway freight train pulling out of Chattanooga and met some white boys sitting on a load of gravel in an open boxcar.

Five black Chattanooga teens, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams and brothers Andy and Roy Wright, had also climbed aboard. When the Memphis-bound train dipped into Georgia, Charlie Weems, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson and Ozie Powell, among others, hopped aboard.

A fistfight broke out in the boxcar while passing through Jackson County, Ala. Six white boys that the African-American boys forced off the train ran back to the Stevenson depot to press charges. The stationmaster contacted Sheriff Matt Wann, who authorized an armed posse to stop the train 38 miles down the line at Paint Rock Depot, 20 miles past Scottsboro.

When 75 armed men stopped the train, Victoria Price (age 26) and Ruby Bates (19) climbed down from the boxcar and chatted with locals for 20 minutes while the posse rounded up the African-American boys and shackled them for starting the fight.

One of the girls told Paint Rock station agent W.H. Hill and Deputy Sheriff Charlie Latham that the black boys had raped them on the train. It was a lie that would resonate for years and transform the lives of all those involved. When the group was transferred to the Scottsboro jail, Ruby and Victoria identified nine of those arrested, aged 12 to 20, as their attackers.

About the Trials of the Scottsboro Boys

Amidst a racially charged atmosphere, Judge Alfred E. Hawkins began the trials April 6 in the Jackson County Courthouse. Four all-white juries reached multiple guilty verdicts in four days. Eight of the nine defendants, who had scant interaction with a lawyer, were sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Nov. 7, 1932, the court ruled in Patterson v. Alabama that the defendants had been denied the right to adequate counsel, a violation of the 14th Amendment, and ordered new trials. The Alabama Supreme Court granted a change of venue to Decatur and selected James Edwin Horton Jr., a highly respected circuit judge, to preside.

A communist-connected legal defense group recruited Samuel Leibowitz, a legendary Jewish lawyer from New York, to defend the men. When Patterson’s retrial began at the Morgan County Courthouse on March 27, 1933, reporters came from all over the nation. In a stunning turn of events, Ruby Bates testified she had not been raped. Victoria Price, on the other hand, remained steadfast that she (Victoria) had indeed been attacked.

When Scottsboro physician Dr. Marvin Lynch had examined the girls, he found no bruises or physical evidence to back up their accusations. He declined to testify for fear of losing business, but told the judge privately he didn’t believe rape had occurred.

Based primarily on Victoria’s testimony, the all-white jury ignored Ruby’s testimony and returned with a guilty verdict on May 9, and asked for the death penalty.

On June 22, Judge Horton held a hearing in the Limestone County Courthouse in his hometown of Athens to discuss defense motions. He read a lengthy review of the evidence and said it did not corroborate the accuser’s testimony. He shocked the courtroom by setting aside Patterson’s conviction and ordered another trial. Northern newspaper editorials cheered the decision, but most Southerners strongly disagreed.

The unhappy justices of the Alabama Supreme Court replaced Horton. He lost re-election the following year, although his home county supported him. Meanwhile, the ambitious prosecutor Attorney General Thomas Knight Jr. was elected lieutenant governor.

The men languished in prison amidst a series of more convictions and death sentences in Decatur. Trials continued into 1937. The last Scottsboro Boy left prison in 1950. The last of the nine died in 1989.

Judge Horton died in 1973 at age 95. Accuser Victoria Price, who never wavered from her story during a dozen trials, surfaced briefly after a 1977 television movie about the case and died in 1982 at a Huntsville hospital at age 77.

The 82-year saga came to a legal conclusion on April 19, 2013, when Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed two pieces of legislation unanimously approved by the Alabama Legislature that exonerated the nine defendants.

Fittingly, the ceremony took place in Scottsboro at the former African-American church where attorney Leibowitz supposedly first met with the young defendants. The governor handed a signing pen to Clarence Norris Jr., a son of the defendant whose appeal triggered the landmark Supreme Court decision Norris v. Alabama. Kathy Horton Garrett, Judge Horton’s granddaughter, also attended.

Follow the Drama From Stevenson to Decatur

Begin your journey at the restored 1872 Stevenson Railroad Depot Museum (207 W. Main St.; 256-437-3012). It is packed with local history exhibits.

Drive 18 miles through the beautiful, lush countryside to the Scottsboro town square and read the historic marker in front of the remodeled Jackson County Courthouse (102 E. Laurel St.). On weekdays when court isn’t in session, visit the second floor courtroom to see the original bench from which Judge Hawkins officiated during the first round of speedy convictions. For more history, from the courthouse walk two blocks west on Laurel Street to the Scottsboro-Jackson County Heritage Center (208 S. Houston St.; 256-259-2122).

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Don't Miss

The Scottsboro Boys Museum

The former Joyce Chapel United Methodist Church where Leibowitz possibly first met with the defendants is now the Scottsboro Boys Museum (428 W. Willow St.; 256-244-1310). Community activist Shelia Washington opened the museum in 2010 and accelerated efforts to exonerate the men, who by that time were all long deceased. The rail tracks that carried the Scottsboro Boys to Paint Rock in 1931 are a block behind the museum. Open hours are limited, so check in advance.

These days, the top tourist attraction in Scottsboro is Unclaimed Baggage Center (509 W. Willow; 256-259-1525), a block west of the museum. The Jackson County tourist information center is at 407 E. Willow St. (256-259-5500).

Where To Eat in Scottsboro

Chances are that some of the crowds in town for the 1931 trials ate at Payne’s (101 E. Laurel St.; 256-574-2140) on the west corner of the square. It opened in 1869 and is famous for its hot dog with red slaw. Out on U.S. Hwy. 72, Carlile’s (23730 John T. Reid Pkwy.; 256-574-5629) is worth a trip for its award-winning tomato pie.

Stop in Paint Rock and Continue to Huntsville

From Scottsboro, drive west on U.S. Hwy. 72 for 20 miles and stop at Paint Rock (population 210) where the train was stopped and the Scottsboro Boys were arrested. This unassuming site is where the modern Civil Rights Movement began, 24 years before Rosa Parks was arrested on a bus in Montgomery.

Arrive in Huntsville, the hometown of the two young women. A day before accusing the Scottsboro Boys of rape, Victoria and Ruby had left the freight depot, which is a block from the historic 1860 Huntsville Depot & Museum (320 Church St. NW; 256-564-8100). The Huntsville Visitor Information Center (500 Church St.; 256-551-2230) is a block west of the depot museum, across the train tracks.

Where To Eat in Huntsville

Huntsville, best known for Army and NASA programs, offers a range of great places to eat. For award-winning dining, visit James Boyce’s Cotton Row downtown (100 South Side Square; 256-382-9500). G’s Country Kitchen (2501 Oakwood Ave.; 256-533-3034) is a café a couple of blocks west of I-565 and is revered for delicious meatloaf and other comfort food.

Head to Decatur

Driving toward Decatur, see Alabama’s top attraction, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center at I-65 exit 15 (1-800-63-SPACE).

Take a side trip off I-65: After Judge James Horton lost re-election in 1934, he dismantled his 1848 house in Athens and reassembled it on a large farm where he died in 1973 at age 95. Take I-65 exit 3, go north two miles and stop at Greenbrier Restaurant (27028 Old Hwy. 20; 256-351-1800), built on land once owned by the judge. Eat great barbecue or catfish and perfect hush puppies. You can see the judge’s private, stately two-story frame home to the north.

A half-hour’s drive west is Decatur. The site of the old Morgan County Courthouse is now a park located at 302 Lee St. NE. A portrait of Horton hangs on the fifth floor. The bench where he presided is in a first-floor courtroom.

By the time Haywood Patterson was retried in Decatur, the case was drawing international media coverage. Local portrait photographer Fred Hiroshige captured iconic images of the retrial. See an exhibition at the Morgan County Archives (624 Bank St. NE; 256-351-4726), which is open weekdays until 4 p.m.

“Justitia Fiat, Coelom Ruat”

Late in his life, Judge Horton was asked about his decision to overturn Patterson’s conviction in 1933. He replied in Latin his grandfather’s motto that translates, “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.” Timothy Hutton starred in a 2006 motion picture about the trial titled Heavens Fall. In 2010, the creators of Cabaret and Chicago captured the case in a Broadway musical that earned 12 Tony nominations.

Where To Eat and Stay in Decatur

After visiting the Morgan County Archives, walk a block to Simp McGhee’s (725 Bank St. NW; 256-353-6284). Order fish served Pontchartrain style. Stay overnight next door at the Amberley Suite Hotel (807 Bank St. NE; 256-355-6800).

End Your Tour in Athens

From Decatur, cross the Tennessee River and drive 12 miles north to Athens to see the handsome 1919 Limestone County Courthouse (200 West Washington St.; 256-233-6400). Visit the large third-floor courtroom where Judge Horton stunned onlookers as he set aside Patterson’s conviction for lack of corroborating evidence, dooming his own political future. After Horton died, local officials installed a bronze plaque on the south wall of the courtroom that quotes his charge to the Decatur jury 40 years earlier: “So far as the law is concerned, it knows neither native nor alien, Jew nor Gentile, black nor white. This case is no different from any other. We have only to do our duty without fear or favor.”

To share questions or comments about this road trip,
please email lee.sentell@tourism.alabama.gov.