This essay tells the story of Scottsboro, one of the most important legal events of the twentieth century, in which nine black teenagers were falsely accused of rape, sentenced to death, and twice successfully appealed their convictions to the United States Supreme Court. In addition to describing the Scottsboro episode in some detail, the essay seeks to draw some lessons from this story: Why did the Supreme Court’s first modern criminal procedure cases tend to involve southern blacks as defendants? Why did southern states seem to regress in their treatment of black criminal defendants in cases such as Scottsboro? What were the long-term ramifications of these Court decisions for the rights of black criminal defendants in the South? Why were the Court’s rulings so inefficacious on the precise issues involved–appointment of counsel for indigent defendants and the right against race discrimination in jury selection? In what ways might such litigation have advanced the cause of black civil rights even though southern states successfully circumvented the narrow holdings of the decisions? And, finally, how might victories in the Supreme Court have paradoxically harmed the cause of black criminal defendants by legitimizing an unjust status quo that the Court had neither the power nor the inclination to alter?

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