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Te achers Guide : Suggestions for Active Le arning

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy


The film Scottsboro: An American Tragedy and the companion Web site,
http://www.pbs.org/amex/scottsboro/index.html, offer insights into topics in
American history including race relations, civil rights, the Depression, the Communist
Party of the United States, and judicial due process. You can use part or all of the
film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either
in a classroom or on your own.
The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, economics, geography,
and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.

Teachers Guide: Scottsboro: An American Tragedy www.pbs.org/americanexperience|


Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
H i sto ry 1 Read the timeline of the Scottsboro cases at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/
timeline/index.html. Then write three diary entries for the day in April 1931 on which the
first group of Scottsboro defendants were sentenced to death. One entry should be from
either Ruby Bates or Victoria Price, one should be from one of the defendants, and one
should be from one of the jurors. In each diary entry, describe how you think that person
might have felt after the trial.
2 a Read a news story of the Scottsboro case that appeared in an African American
newspaper in 1935 at http://www.afro.com/history/scott/young.html. What topics does
the story discuss?
2 b Read a few of the New York Times stories about the case at http://www.law.umkc.edu/
faculty/projects/FTrials/scottsboro/Newspapr.html. How does the story from the African
American newspaper differ from the New York Times stories?
3 After consulting the Scottsboro timeline at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/
timeline/index.html, list the nine Scottsboro defendants and explain how and when each
man gained his freedom. How much time did the four men who were never tried spend in
prison before their release?

Helpful Hints
1 Diary entries should reflect an awareness of the various likely reactions to the trial.
For example, the Bates/Price diary might reflect feelings of guilt or fear; the defendants
diary might reflect anger or resignation; the jurors diary might reflect anger or satisfaction.
2 a It describes the extreme poverty in which one of the defendants (Eugene Williams) grew up,
his young age at the time of his arrest, and his difficulties in prison.
2 b The story in the African American newspaper is sympathetic to the accused, while the New
York Times stories appear more neutral; the story in the African American newspaper also
focuses more on the feelings of the persons involved.
3 Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright were freed in 1937
after charges against them were dropped; they had spent six years in prison. Of the five
Scottsboro defendants to be convicted, Charles Weems was paroled in 1943, Ozie Powell
and Clarence Norris were paroled in 1946 (Norris was declared not guilty in 1976),
Haywood Patterson escaped from prison in 1948 (but was jailed later on an unrelated
charge), and Andrew Wright was paroled in 1950. Read more about the Scottsboro boys at
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/peopleevents/index.html.

Teachers Guide: Scottsboro: An American Tragedy www.pbs.org/americanexperience|


Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
E c o n o m i c s 1a Read the profiles of Ruby Bates at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/
peopleevents/p_bates.html and Victoria Price at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/
scottsboro/peopleevents/p_price.html. Briefly describe the two women who accused
the Scottsboro defendants of rape, especially their socio-economic background.

1b Read the profiles of Olen Montgomery and other Scottsboro defendants at http://
www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/peopleevents/index.html. Briefly describe these
young men, especially their socio-economic background.
1c How might the socio-economic background of both the accusers and the defendants have
helped shape the events of the case?
2 a Read the background on the International Labor Defense at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/
amex/scottsboro/peopleevents/p_ild.html and the description of the I.L.D.s role in the
Scottsboro case at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/scottsboro.html. What was
the link between the I.L.D. and the American Communist Party?
2 b According to the American Communist Party, how did the Scottsboro case demonstrate one
of the evils of the American capitalist system?

Helpful Hints
1a Both were white; both were young (17 and 21, respectively) and poor; both had worked in the
mills of Huntsville, Alabama; Price might have been a prostitute.
1b The defendants were African American teenagers; they had received little if any education;
some had IQs far below normal; all were poor.
1c The accusers low status might have helped cause them to make the charge of rape as
a way of separating themselves from the black youths who also were on the train. The
defendants lack of wealth or education made it more difficult for them to defend themselves.
In addition, neither group of persons probably would have been on the train if they had not
been poor.
2 a The I.L.D. was the legal arm of the American Communist Party.
2 b It showed that the ruling (white) class in the South was continuing to oppress disadvantaged
African Americans.

Teachers Guide: Scottsboro: An American Tragedy www.pbs.org/americanexperience|


Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
G eo g r aphy 1 Draw or copy a map and label the major trial locations, using the map provided at
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/maps/index.html as a resource. Why was
the controversy named after Scottsboro?
2 In the excerpts from Alabama v. Patterson, read the portions of Judge James Hortons
opinion in granting a new trial at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/peopleevents/
p_horton.html. Explain why the location of the alleged crime helped cause the judge to doubt
the womens testimony.

Helpful Hints
1 Scottsboro was the location of the first of the trials.
2 The crime, which usually is committed secretly, was allegedly committed on an open train car
as that train moved through several populated areas.

Teachers Guide: Scottsboro: An American Tragedy www.pbs.org/americanexperience|


Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
Civi cs 1a Read the summaries of the two major Supreme Court cases in the Scottsboro affair, along
with the excerpts available from the Court rulings in those two cases at http://www.courttv.
com/archive/greatesttrials/scottsboro/courtspeaks.html. In Powell v. Alabama (1932),
the Court ruled that the Scottsboro defendants were denied the right to counsel, which
violated their right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. What is meant by the
phrase right to counsel? According to the Court, how had the Scottsboro defendants
been denied this right?
1b In Norris v. Alabama (1935), the Court ruled that the exclusion of blacks from jury rolls
deprived black defendants of their rights to equal protection under the law. What was the
main evidence that blacks had been excluded from jury rolls? Why would this exclusion
deprive black defendants of their rights to equal protection under the law?
2 Visit the online poll at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/scottsboro/sfeature/sf_poll.html
on whether different defense lawyers and funding sources might have produced a different
outcome in the Scottsboro cases. After answering the poll questions and checking the
polls results to date, write a brief essay in which you explain your opinion on the following
question: If you were advising the defendants, would you take the jurys potential prejudices
into account in selecting a lawyer and a funding source, or would that only reinforce the
prejudices you are attempting to fight?

Helpful Hints
1a It is the right to have an attorney represent you. The defendants were not asked if they
wanted to appoint their own lawyer or given a chance to do so; only at the last minute was
a lawyer assigned to defend them.
1b No one could recall ever seeing a black serve on a jury in that county. It meant that blacks
always would be judged by all-white juries, rather than by a jury of their peers.
2 Some students may argue that these decisions should be based on competence alone
and should not consider any possible jury prejudice against an outside lawyer or organization.
Other students may argue that the top priority is gaining a fair trial for the defendants,
and that nothing should be done that might encourage the jury to behave unfairly.

Teachers Guide: Scottsboro: An American Tragedy www.pbs.org/americanexperience|