In 1931, nine black boys were hitching a ride aboard the Southern Railroad freight train. The illegal use of the freight trains was a common mode of transportation for Depression-era workers, both white and black. News had spread that jobs were available in Memphis, so those in search of survival hopped on the Chattanooga train. The group included boys, ranging from age twelve to nineteen, some from Chattanooga and four others from Georgia. They were: Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris and Roy Wright. They rode the car that included other white children and adults who were ‘hoboing’ to Memphis.
On March 25th, a fight broke out between the black and white kids. One of the white kids stepped on the hand of Haywood Patterson and a fight broke out. When one of the white kids named Orville Gilley was about to be thrown from the train, a black child named Haywood Patterson, grabbed his hand and saved his life. When the train stationed at Paint Rock, Alabama, the police and a mob of angry white men with guns were waiting for the black boys to arrest them. Apparently the train conductor had called in the fight prior to arriving. However, the boys were charged with raping two white women – Victoria Price and Ruby Bates – instead of fighting with the white kids. All the boys, except the youngest, were sentenced to death.
During the course of the trial, many inconsistencies were presented. Price indicated that she was gang raped by six of the boys, and the “law” concluded that the others must have been involved and the other white woman “was likely raped” as well. The boys were represented in court by unpaid real estate attorneys, one of whom was rumored to have a drinking problem.
A few of the boys were coerced into confessing to the crime after they received repeated beatings in jail. After the case reached the Alabama Supreme Court, they were given the counsel of Sam Liebowitz. The boys were moved to a rat-infested jail facility. During trial, Liebowitz uncovered the work of Victoria Price, a prostitute, who was traveling on the train for “immoral purposes”, which was illegal. Even the doctor hired by the prosecution strengthened the case for the defense, indicating that neither of the women had evidence or attitude of gang rape when examined.
The one eye witness at the trial, with Judge Horton presiding, claimed to have seen the boys grab the women on the train. However, he misidentified the clothing that the women wore, indicating that they wore dresses, when everyone, including the jury, knew that the women traveled in overalls. Prior to Liebowitz resting the case, Ruby Bates came forward and recanted her story, telling the judge that she had never even met the boys prior to the trial.
The case was somehow reissued under Judge William Callahan, who made clear and public indications that he was for the prosecution. Haywood Patterson and Clarence Norris were both found guilty of rape. Liebowitz filed an appeal and a hold was put on the remaining cases. Seven of the boys were held in prison for six years or more prior to their trials. By 1937, after several state and the U.S. Supreme Court Trials, the following verdicts were issued:
Clarence Norris – Sentenced to death (paroled in 1946)
Andy Wright – Sentenced to 99 years in prison
Charlie Weems – Sentenced to 75 years (paroled in 1943)
Willie Roberson – Exonerated
Olen Montgomery – Exonerated
Eugene Williams – Exonerated
Roy Wright – Exonerated
Ozzie Powell – Charged with assaulting a Deputy (paroled in 1946)
Haywood Patterson – Sentenced to death (escaped in 1948)