C. Norris, 76; Last of the Scottsboro 9
Clarence Norris, the last of the so-called “Scottsboro Boys,” the nine teen-age black youths accused of raping two Southern white women in the 1930s, has died.
Norris, who wept openly when he was pardoned in 1976, was 76 and died Monday at Bronx Community Hospital in New York City. Death was attributed by a hospital spokesman to a “long illness.” (United Press International reported he had been in a nursing home for the last two years suffering from a variety of ailments.)
Norris was sentenced to death three times and served 15 years in prison. He then became a fugitive for the next 30 years after fleeing Alabama in violation of his parole.
All but the youngest of the nine young men were sentenced to death for supposedly raping the women aboard a freight train near Scottsboro, Ala., in 1931. Their series of three trials, viewed as a succession of legal charades by much of the nation, had dragged on until 1937 when one of the women, Ruby Bates, withdrew her accusation.
The case began when Bates and Victoria Price claimed they were raped while riding the train between Chattanooga and Memphis. There was little evidence of rape ever offered at the trial but the involvement of the Communist Party in the defense stifled objectivity. And even after Bates’ withdrawal of her accusation, the nine were nevertheless convicted.
The case came to typify to liberals across the nation all that was wrong with racial relations in the Deep South in the Depression era.
In his 1979 autobiography, “The Last of the Scottsboro Boys,” Norris said the women were afraid they would be accused of associating with blacks and that’s why they brought rape charges.
The racial vituperation spilled over onto everyone involved in the case. The International Labor Defense finally won the right to defend the youths after political battles with the Communist Party and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
The ILD, a socialist group, hired Samuel S. Liebowitz, a New York attorney, who thereafter was referred to in the South as a “meddling New York Jew.” There were several threats on Liebowitz’s life and at one time New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia sent detectives to Alabama to guard him.
After Norris and the others were predictably convicted and sentenced to death, their sentences eventually were reduced to life or long imprisonment terms and Norris was paroled in 1946. He wrote in his book that he could not live in Alabama because of the stigma from the trial and so broke parole and fled to Cleveland and eventually to New York.
In 1970, working through the NAACP, he began working to clear his name.
Six years later and 45 years after the crime that he said he never committed, Norris, by then the lone survivor of the original nine, was pardoned by Alabama.