Alabama Governor Robert Bentley recently signed the Scottsboro Boys Act, which finally and officially exonerated the Scottsboro Boys. "This has been a long time coming," Bentley said before signing the act. "But it's never too late to do the right thing."
On a chilly March morning in 1931, nine African American boys boarded a freight train. Like thousands of other young men and women during the Depression, they were looking for work. Little could they have imagined that in the days, months and years to come they would change the course of history. It began when those nine boys were arrested and wrongfully charged with the rape of two white women. Because of a racist judicial system and a tragic miscarriage of justice, they were all convicted. Nine innocent lives were destroyed.
Governor Bentley signed the Scottsboro Boys Act the Scottsboro Museum, which is housed in the church where many activities relating to the trials took place. The event was especially poignant because of some of the participants, including the children of Clarence Norris (one of the Scottsboro boys); the daughter and granddaughter of the great Judge James Horton, who risked his career by staying the execution of Haywood Patterson; and the grandchildren of Sheriff Matt Wann, who kept a lynch mob at bay when the boys were first arrested and was later allegedly murdered for this brave act. The day of the signing was a day of healing.
I was accorded the great honor of speaking at the ceremony because of my work supporting the Museum. This transpired because of the wondrous interplay of history and theatre. I learned about the Scottsboro Boys tragedy because I was a producer of The Scottsboro Boys Musical on Broadway in 2010. Sad to say, I had not even known about the tragedy before. Sadder to say, the Scottsboro Boys history is rarely taught in schools. It should be, for it was a precursor to the Civil Rights movement and the genesis of historic decisions by the United States Supreme Court. Rosa Parks met her husband at a Scottsboro Boys rally. Rosa Parks' husband had in fact been at meetings in the Museum church to support the Boys.
The Scottsboro Boys Musical is making a difference. It is touching lives. Shelia Washington, the founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and the driving force behind the legislation, credits the show, which first opened Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, with bringing attention both to the case and to the Museum. After receiving 12 Tony nominations, the show garnered awards and played to sold out houses in Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco. A production of the show opens this spring in Los Angeles and then this fall I'm producing it with the Young Vic Theatre in London. "What was once a whisper is now a roar," sing the cast of the The Scottsboro Boys.
At the signing ceremony, Shelia spoke of finding Haywood Patterson's book, "Scottsboro Boy," under her parents' mattress when she was 17 and of how it inspired her. No one was supposed to be reading about the Scottsboro Boys then in Alabama. She was forbidden to look at it. But Shelia didn't obey. That book triggered something within her, as it has in so many.
Another hero of the story, in addition to Judge Horton, Sheriff Wann, and the boys themselves, was the great Jewish lawyer, Samuel Liebowitz, who devoted himself to the Scottsboro case for no remuneration and at great risk to his life. His work with the boys led to the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Powell v. Alabama (1932), which held that poor defendants facing the death penalty must be provided with adequate counsel, and Norris vs. Alabama (1935), which held that blacks could not constitutionally be excluded from the jury.
Of all the shows I've worked on, The Scottsboro Boys Musical is the one I'm most passionate about because of its historical significance, its artistic brilliance, its ability to change lives, to make an impact, and to keep the conversation going.
The Passage of the Scottsboro Boys Act proves that people can learn over time. In the musical, the lyricist Fred Ebb wrote a beautiful lyric for Haywood Patterson to sing:
Maybe times will turn, I pray so
Maybe someday I'll get lucky
Someone's gonna say "All right son,
Take the train and go back home
Hop a freight and go back home
Now we continue the journey.