Norris v. Alabama Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(American Decades Primary Sources: 1930-1939)

Eight of the nine Scottsboro boys sit in jail after being convicted on false charges of rape. UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Eight of the nine Scottsboro boys sit in jail after being convicted on false charges of rape. UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Supreme Court decision

By: Charles Evans Hughes

Date: April 1, 1935

Source: Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587 (1935). Available online at (accessed February 7, 2003).

About the Author: Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948), a conservative reformer, served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1930 to 1941. Earlier in his career, he began working for a law firm in 1884 and later taught at Cornell Law School. He gained a reputation as an independent-thinking Republican when he headed several investigations of corruption in industries during the Progressive Era, a period when a vibrant antitrust movement sought to regulate corporations. Hughes was elected governor of New York in 1906 and served two terms. He served as an associate justice to the Supreme Court from 1910 to 1916. He ran for president against incumbent Woodrow Wilson (served 1931–1921) and later served as secretary of state from 1921 to 1925.


On March 25, 1931, about twenty-five youths who were searching for employment had taken a freight train south from Chattanooga. During the Great Depression millions of unemployed Americans migrated across the country to seek work by hopping trains from town to town. While on the train, African American youths had confrontations with white teenagers, forcing the whites off the train. When the white teenagers notified the police, the authorities ordered the train to stop near Paint Rock, Alabama. A sheriff took custody of the nine African American teenagers and two white women. When the young women realized they might be arrested, the women accused the black teenagers of raping them at knifepoint.

When the nine youths were taken to the Paint Rock jail, crowds gathered outside. With the possibility of a lynching imminent, the sheriff moved the arrested youths to a jail in Scottsboro. Meanwhile, the governor of Alabama sent twenty-five National Guardsmen to the scene in case of a riot. In only two weeks, an all-white grand jury indicted the nine teenagers for forcible rape, and the court tried and found all of them guilty. Even though the trial had proceeded hastily and the women gave contradictory testimony, in what amounted to a "legal lynching," eight of the boys were sentenced to death by electrocution. Only the youngest one had been spared the death penalty.

With the Communist Party rallying behind the Scottsboro boys, the case became well known around the world, as the European press covered the ensuing story on a consistent basis. The nine youths received a groundswell of support from all over the world, and the injustices they suffered became one of the most searing indictments of Jim Crow laws (the system of white supremacy used to subjugate African Americans) in the South to surface in the United States up to that point.

The International Labor Defense (ILD), an organization associated with the Communist Party, fought a legal campaign to reverse the Scottsboro decision. Later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined in the defense as well. After the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions, except for that of the youngest defendant, two Scottsboro cases were eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A week after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, the Supreme Court reversed the verdict in Powell v. Alabama, arguing that the youths had not received effective legal counsel and had not gotten a fair trial, both of which were mandated by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

When the cases were retried in Alabama, one of the nine defendants, Clarence Norris, received the death sentence once again. When the Norris v. Alabama case reached the Supreme Court, the decision was reversed again on the grounds that African Americans had been systematically excluded from serving on the juries. Both the Powell and Norris cases were groundbreaking because the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was used to challenge the lack of effective counsel and all-white jury trials, which historically had been used in the South to systematically enforce white supremacy. The cases were the most impressive civil rights victories to date that had been won before the Supreme Court. The last Scottsboro defendant was released from prison in 1950.


In the early twentieth century, when it came to questions of race, the record of the Supreme Court was uneven at best. Although the Court was more active than before in protecting the rights of racial minorities, significant changes in constitutional doctrine would not occur until Chief Justice Earl Warren headed the Court after 1953. In the 1930s, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes generally supported civil liberties and the rights of the accused. Although by no means free of racism, Hughes tended to side with victims of racial discrimination when presented with stark evidence that the rights protected by the Constitution had been violated or skirted. A rigorous defender of the legal process, he was angered by the blatant racism in the criminal justice system.

Although the vindication of the Scottsboro boys did not bring fundamental changes to legal doctrine, the case brought about the use of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition to the Norris case, the Powell decision was the first time the Supreme Court had held that the due process clause required that the state provide counsel to indigent defendants if doing otherwise would result in an unfair trial.

One of the turning points in the emergence of a modern civil rights movement in the United States, the Scottsboro cases represented a common tactic among progressive civil rights groups: mass defense and legal action. Organizations such as the NAACP used legal action to gradually chip away at legal segregation and disenfranchisement in the South. Finding that the legal avenues were not working, by the 1950s more militant civil rights activists, who had formed organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), initiated nonviolent direct actions such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 on a massive scale across the South.

Primary Source: Norris v. Alabama [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In this excerpt from Norris v. Alabama, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes argues that Clarence Norris, one of the Scottsboro boys who had been sentenced to death for the rape of two white women, was denied the right to due process. This right, guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, was violated when African Americans were systematically excluded from serving on the jury. The case was decided on April 1, 1935.

Mr. Chief Justice Hughes delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, Clarence Norris, is one of nine negro boys who were indicted in March, 1931, in Jackson County, Alabama, for the crime of rape. On being brought to trial in that county, eight were convicted. The Supreme Court of Alabama reversed the conviction of one of these, and affirmed that of seven, including Norris. This Court reversed the judgments of conviction upon the ground that the defendants had been denied due process of law in that the trial court had failed, in the light of the circumstances disclosed, and of the inability of the defendants at that time to obtain counsel, to make an effective appointment of counsel to aid them in preparing and presenting their defense. Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45.

After the remand, a motion for change of venue was granted, and the cases were transferred to Morgan County. Norris was brought to trial in November, 1933. At the outset, a motion was made on his behalf to quash the indictment upon the ground of the exclusion of negroes from juries in Jackson County where the indictment was found. A motion was also made to quash the trial venire in Morgan County upon the ground of the exclusion of negroes from juries in that county. In relation to each county, the charge was of long-continued, systematic and arbitrary exclusion of qualified negro citizens from service on juries solely because of their race and color, in violation of the Constitution of the United States. The State joined issue on this charge, and, after hearing the evidence, which we shall presently review, the trial judge denied both motions, and exception was taken. The trial then proceeded, and resulted in the conviction of Norris, who was sentenced to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court of the State considered and decided the federal question which Norris had raised, and affirmed the judgment. 229 Ala. 226; 156 So. 556. We granted a writ of certiorari. 293 U.S. 552.

First. There is no controversy as to the constitutional principle involved. That principle, long since declared, was not challenged, but was expressly recognized, by the Supreme Court of the State. Summing up precisely the effect of earlier decisions, this Court thus stated the principle in Carter v. Texas, 177 U.S. 442, 447, in relation to exclusion from service on grand juries:

Whenever, by any action of a State, whether through its legislature, through its courts, or through its executive or administrative officers,

all persons of the African race are excluded solely because of their race or color, from serving as grand jurors in the criminal prosecution of a person of the African race, the equal protection of the laws is denied to him, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Strauder v. West Virginia,100 U.S. 303; Neal v. Delaware,103 U.S. 370, 397; Gibson v. Mississippi, 162 U.S. 565.

This statement was repeated in the same terms in Rogers v. Alabama, 192 U.S. 226, 231, and again in Martin v. Texas, 200 U.S. 316, 319. The principle is equally applicable to a similar exclusion of negroes from service on petit juries. Strauder v. West Virginia, supra; Martin v. Texas, supra. And although the state statute defining the qualifications of jurors may be fair on its face, the constitutional provision affords protection against action of the State through its administrative officers in effecting the prohibited discrimination. Neal v. Delaware, supra; Carter v.

Texas, supra. Compare Virginia v. Rives, 100 U.S. 313, 322, 323; In re Wood, 140 U.S. 278, 285; Thomas v. Texas, 212 U.S. 278, 282, 283.

The question is of the application of this established principle to the facts disclosed by the record. That the question is one of fact does not relieve us of the duty to determine whether, in truth, a federal right has been denied. When a federal right has been specially set up and claimed in a state court, it is our province to inquire not merely whether it was denied in express terms, but also whether it was denied in substance and effect. If this requires an examination of evidence, that examination must be made. Otherwise, review by this Court would fail of its purpose in safeguarding constitutional rights. Thus, whenever a conclusion of law of a state court as to a federal right and findings of fact are so intermingled that the latter control the former, it is incumbent upon us to analyze the facts in order that the appropriate enforcement of the federal right may be assured. Creswell v. Knights of Pythias,225 U.S. 246, 261; Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. North Dakota, 236 U.S. 585, 593; Ward v. Love County, 253 U.S. 17, 22; Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22, 24; Fiske v. Kansas, 274 U.S. 380, 385, 386; Ancient Etian Order v. Michaux, 279 U.S. 737, 745.

Second. The evidence on the motion to quash the indictment. In 1930, the total population of Jackson County, where the indictment was found, was 36,881, of whom 2,688 were negroes. The male population over twenty-one years of age numbered 8,801, and of these, 666 were negroes.

The qualifications of jurors were thus prescribed by the state statute (Alabama Code, 1923, § 8603):

The jury commission shall place on the jury roll and in the jury box the names of all male citizens of the county who are generally reputed to be honest and intelligent men, and are esteemed in the community for their integrity, good character and sound judgment, but no person must be selected who is under twenty-one or over sixty-five years of age, or who is an habitual drunkard, or who, being afflicted with a permanent disease or physical weakness, is unfit to discharge the duties of a juror, or who cannot read English, or who has ever been convicted of any offense involving moral turpitude. If a person cannot read English and has all the other qualifications prescribed herein and is a freeholder or householder, his name may be placed on the jury roll and in the jury box.…

Defendant adduced evidence to support the charge of unconstitutional discrimination in the actual administration of the statute in Jackson County. The testimony, as the state court said, tended to show that, "in a long number of years, no negro had been called for jury service in that county." It appeared that no negro had served on any grand or petit jury in that county within the memory of witnesses who had lived there all their lives. Testimony to that effect was given by men whose ages ran from fifty to seventy-six years. Their testimony was un-contradicted. It was supported by the testimony of officials. The clerk of the jury commission and the clerk of the circuit court had never known of a negro serving on a grand jury in Jackson County.…

That testimony, in itself, made out a prima facie case of the denial of the equal protection which the Constitution guarantees. See Neal v. Delaware, supra. The case thus made was supplemented by direct testimony that specified negroes, thirty or more in number, were qualified for jury service. Among these were negroes who were members of school boards, or trustees, of colored schools, and property owners and householders.…

We are of the opinion that the evidence required a different result from that reached in the state court. We think that the evidence that, for a generation or longer, no negro had been called for service on any jury in Jackson County, that there were negroes qualified for jury service, that, according to the practice of the jury commission, their names would normally appear on the preliminary list of male citizens of the requisite age, but that no names of negroes were placed on the jury roll, and the testimony with respect to the lack of appropriate consideration of the qualifications of negroes established the discrimination which the Constitution forbids. The motion to quash the indictment upon that ground should have been granted.

Third. The evidence on the motion to quash the trial venire. The population of Morgan County, where the trial was had, was larger than that of Jackson County, and the proportion of negroes was much greater. The total population of Morgan County in 1930 was 46,176, and, of this number, 8,311 were negroes.

Within the memory of witnesses long resident there, no negro had ever served on a jury in that county or had been called for such service. Some of these witnesses were over fifty years of age, and had always lived in Morgan County. Their testimony was not contradicted. A clerk of the circuit court, who had resided in the county for thirty years, and who had been in office for over four years, testified that, during his official term, approximately 2,500 persons had been called for jury service, and that not one of them was a negro; that he did not recall "ever seeing any single person of the colored race serve on any jury in Morgan County."

There was abundant evidence that there were a large number of negroes in the county who were qualified for jury service. Men of intelligence, some of whom were college graduates, testified to long lists (said to contain nearly 200 names) of such qualified negroes, including many businessmen, owners of real property, and householders.…

We find no warrant for a conclusion that the names of any of the negroes as to whom this testimony was given, or of any other negroes, were placed on the jury rolls. No such names were identified. The evidence that, for many years, no negro had been called for jury service itself tended to show the absence of the names of negroes from the jury rolls, and the State made no effort to prove their presence.…

For this long-continued, unvarying, and wholesale exclusion of negroes from jury service, we find no justification consistent with the constitutional mandate. We have carefully examined the testimony of the jury commissioners upon which the state court based its decision.…

The general attitude of the jury commissioner is shown by the following extract from his testimony:

I do not know of any negro in Morgan County over twenty-one and under sixty-five who is generally reputed to be honest and intelligent and who is esteemed in the community for his integrity, good character and sound judgment, who is not an habitual drunkard, who isn't afflicted with a permanent disease or physical weakness which would render him unfit to discharge the duties of a juror, and who can read English, and who has never been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.

In the light of the testimony given by defendant's witnesses, we find it impossible to accept such a sweeping characterization of the lack of qualifications of negroes in Morgan County. It is so sweeping, and so contrary to the evidence as to the many qualified negroes, that it destroys the intended effect of the commissioner's testimony.…

We are concerned only with the federal question which we have discussed, and, in view of the denial of the federal right suitably asserted, the judgment must be reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Further Resources


Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Hine, Darlene Clark. The Path to Equality: From the Scottsboro Case to the Breaking of Baseball's Color Barrier, 1931–1947. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

Patterson, Haywood and Earl Conrad. Scottsboro Boy. New York: Collier, 1969.