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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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People & Events: Haywood Patterson, 1913 - 1952

    Haywood Patterson"I'd rather die than spend another day in jail for something I didn't do."
    -- after getting 75 years, rather than the requested death sentence, January 24, 1936

Haywood Patterson was born in Elberton, Georgia in 1913. By the time he was fourteen, he was riding the rails, looking for work. He was 18 when he hopped on an Alabama-bound freight train with his friends Eugene Williams and Roy and Andy Wright. Patterson admitted that he was one of the black teenagers who fought with white hoboes, who had tried to force them off the train, but the charge against him was rape.

After the first trial, in which the nine Scottsboro defendants were tried in groups, Patterson became the point man in the subsequent trials. In March 1933 he was retried before Judge James Horton of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, with Samuel Leibowitz as lead defense attorney. That trial ended in a conviction and death sentence, but Judge Horton set aside the conviction. The next trial, before Judge William Callahan, resulted in another death sentence.

Haywood Patterson sitting with the defense lawyersA confusing series of filing deadlines was missed and Patterson lost his right to appeal. However, in their ruling on Norris v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court recognized that the two cases were interrelated and strongly suggested that the lower courts look into the Patterson case again.

While in prison, Patterson found he regretted skipping out on school. "I held a pencil in my hand, but I couldn't tap the power that was in it." But he taught himself to read using a dictionary and a Bible.

Patterson was not particularly well liked, by the other Scottsboro defendants (Clarence Norris swore he would kill Patterson if he had a chance), by other prisoners, or by the guards that ran the prisons. In Atmore Prison, he had to keep perpetually vigilant against physical and sexual assaults. To avoid the latter, Patterson himself became a sexual predator, and kept a "gal-boy." He lost faith in all things but one: "I had faith in my knife. It had saved me many times."

Haywood Patterson and Samuel Liebowitz in jailIn February 1941, a guard paid one of Patterson's friends to kill him. This "friend" stabbed him twenty times, puncturing a lung and sending him to the brink of death. Amazingly, he recovered.

After alternating between being a maniacal terror and a model prisoner, Patterson managed to get himself transferred to Kilby Prison, and assigned to the prison farm. In 1948 Patterson made a successful prison break. Escaping to Detroit, he was eventually caught by the FBI, but the governor of Michigan refused to allow him to be extradited to Alabama.

Still in Detroit, Patterson worked with a journalist, Earl Conrad, to write his autobiography. Scottsboro Boy was published in June 1950. In December of that year, he was arrested after a fight in a bar resulted in a stabbing death. His first trial ended in a hung jury; the second was a mistrial. After his third trial, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six to fifteen years. He served only one, as he died of cancer in jail on August 24, 1952.

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