At an event commemorating the imprisonment 92 years ago of the “Scottsboro Boys”—nine African American teenagers—for rape, a crime none of them committed, OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan reiterated demands for racial equity in the juvenile justice system. Combatting racial disparities is a “guiding principle” for her work, she said.
“Young people face racially disparate treatment even today,” the Administrator said March 24 at the Scottsboro Boys Museum in Scottsboro, AL. In 2020, African American youth were nearly 2.5 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested, she said, and national data show that youth of color often receive harsher treatment than their white counterparts—even when charged with similar offenses. Youth of color are also more likely to be prosecuted in adult criminal courts—just as the Scottsboro teens were in 1931.
It was the second year of what would become the 10-year Great Depression, and the nine African American teens had hopped a freight train headed to Memphis, TN, in search of work. They never made it.
While travelling through northern Alabama, fights broke out between the African American youth and a group of white teenagers. The white group was forced from the train. Irate, they blamed the altercations on the African American teens. A mob formed. At the Paint Rock, AL, station, white men pulled the African American youth off the train and hauled them to the Scottsboro jail.
At the same time, two white women on the train were caught without tickets. Fearing charges of vagrancy and prostitution, they falsely accused the African American youth of rape. That lie irrevocably altered the lives of those teens. Clarence Norris, Jr., Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Andrew Wright, Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, and Eugene Williams ultimately became national symbols of racial oppression.
“The young men endured courtroom trials, convictions, retrials, and incarceration, collectively spending 130 years in Alabama’s jails and prisons for a crime they did not commit,” Administrator Ryan wrote in a 2021 article published by the Alabama Political Reporter. “Referred to by their supporters as the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ because of where the first trial took place, for years they lived on Alabama’s death row where they could hear the buzz of the electric current as it coursed through the bodies of people being executed.”
Outrage from the case helped propel the civil rights movement and has influenced rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the Powell v. Alabama decision upholding the right of all defendants to effective legal counsel when accused of a capital crime. While those outcomes may represent progress, it came on the backs of nine young men whose skin color made them prey.
“These teenagers grew into men while enduring years of courtroom trials, convictions, retrials, incarceration—and all that those things bring with them, including physical harm and mental anguish to them and their families—even after one of the women admitted they made up the rape claim,” Administrator Ryan said at the commemoration. “As we remember these nine young people, it is important to renew our collective commitment to addressing the harm that young people too often encounter in our justice system today.”