ACLU lawyers played a major role in the infamous 'Scottsboro Boys' case, which began in 1931 and would ultimately have far-reaching effects. The case marked the first stirrings of the civil rights movement and led to two landmark Supreme Court rulings that established important rights for criminal defendants. Nine young black Alabama youths – ranging in age from 12 to 19 – were charged with raping two white women near the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama. Their trials began 12 days after the alleged crime and, despite ample evidence that they were innocent, eight of the nine were found guilty by all-white juries and sentenced to death in the electric chair. As national outrage over the convictions grew, numerous organizations came forward to assist with appeals, including the ACLU.
The Scottsboro defendants were ultimately saved from execution, but they languished in prison for years. Even after being released, most never fully recovered from their ordeal. Their story has rightly been called 'an American tragedy.'