At the height of the Depression in March 1931, a group of black teens got into a fight with a group of white teens while riding on a freight train. When the white youth were thrown off the train, they reported the incident. Dozens of armed men met the train when it stopped at the next town and dragged the black youth off.
Rather than charging them with assault, the deputized posse discovered two young white women also riding the train, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. They agreed to accuse the nine black teenagers of rape.
These young men, who ranged in age from just 12 to 19, were hurriedly tried in an Alabama court. And despite an utter lack of evidence, eight were sentenced to death for rape.
WATCH: Host Melissa Harris-Perry’s February open letter about the “Scottsboro Boys”
The initial farce of a trial endured by these young men, who became known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” was only the begining of a saga that lasted for decades. Their executions were stayed pending appeal. Within months Ruby Bates recanted her claim of having been raped. In 1932, the Supreme Court reversed their convictions.
But throughout the 1940s and 1950s, some of the men were tried again, some convicted, some paroled, some attempted and managed escape, some were convicted of other crimes.
Throughout these decades the injuistices visited on the Scottsboro Boys became a flashpoint for political organizing and legal efforts to reform the racially biased system of American–and especially Southern–criminal justice. Their cases made it all the way to the Supreme Court and led to foundational rulings for criminal defendants. By 1989 all nine men had died.
But last week, 82 years after their journey began, a three-person panel of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned the final three “Scottsboro Boys.” Although invited, none of the relatives of the men attended the event on Thursday where pardon certificates were given to the executive director of The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.
At that event, Alabama State Senator Arthur Orr said,
“Today is a reminder that it is never too late to right a wrong. We cannot go back in time and change the course of history, but we can change how we respond to history.”
A measure of justice? Maybe.
But justice delayed is justice denied. 82 years later, with every man long dead, it is hard to see the justice in this moment.