Accused! The Trials of the Scottsboro Boys: Lies, Prejudice, and The Fourteenth Amendment by Larry Dane Brimner
Suggested Grades 9-12
“What happened in the Scottsboro case wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that the world heard about it.” This quote by Haywood Patterson jumps out on the first page in bold white letters against a solid black background. The nine Scottsboro Boys’ group photograph appears on the next two facing pages with the white boldly printed word “ACCUSED!” positioned over their images.
On the next page is Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution which states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”
Unfortunately this amendment was not upheld for the nine Scottsboro boys who on March 25, 1931 found themselves wrongly accused of the worst crime imaginable for a black man – raping a white woman. The fast paced account of their trials and retrials due to publicity and politics is gut wrenching, more so when considering their young ages.
Look carefully at the next two pages, “Who Were the Scottsboro Boys?” Note their names, ages, photographs, and brief text about their purpose for riding the freight that fateful day.
Suggestions for in-class activities:
When introducing this book, have each student fold a piece of copy paper into nine equal sections (first in thirds, then in half). Label the top of each section with one of the boys names and his age. As the book is read, write information learned about each in the appropriate section. Doing this will personalize the boys and make their lives more memorable as they struggle with the Alabama judicial system. If you have multiple book copies, students may read and record information in small groups. If not, circulate the book or read it aloud while stopping periodically to discuss, react, and jot information on each boy.
On the back of this folded paper a guided written response or free response may be written. Make sure to include the title and author with part of the response directed to the author’s purpose and expertise.
Even though the Fourteenth Amendment was valid for the Scottsboro Boys, racism prevented them from its protections. Invite the students to detail how that happened. A readily seen classroom poster of this amendment for referral will help students remember it and use it when discussing this book.
Follow up by inviting guests working in the judicial system to visit the class to talk about his/her responsibilities and answer students’ questions.
Check the extensive bibliography and suggestions for further reading on related topics. Make sure to visit the website for the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center which links what happened in 1931 to the ongoing civil rights movement. The author also listed other nearby places of interest in Jackson County situated in the rolling hills of northern Alabama.
Why did the author choose to write about something that happened 90 years ago? Discuss. (One of Brimmer’s reasons is to show the fateful consequences of lies – how they can destroy lives. Don’t miss the “Author’s Note” to gain extra information about the boys’ later lives.)
How does the Fourteenth Amendment work for all United States citizens today? Any current problems with jury selections? Is justice served equally? Do poor plaintiffs receive adequate representation? What about the incarceration system? How are paroles granted? Can an innocent person be found guilty and be incarcerated or worse? Any recourse?
Comments by Virginia Lopez, retired educator