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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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People & Events: Ozie Powell, 1916 - ?

    Ozie Powell"Momma ain't but one thing I want to tell you right now. Don't let Sam Leibowitz have anything else to do with my case."
    -- after being shot, January 1936

Ozie Powell was born in rural Georgia, near Atlanta, in 1916. His parents separated when he was young and his mother worked for white people in Atlanta. He could write his name, but not much else.

When he was fourteen, he left home, working at camps and sawmills for weeks or months at a time before moving on. A year after leaving home, he was headed toward Memphis on a Southern Railroad train. At Haywood Patterson's first trial, Powell testified that he had followed a group of black boys who were going to throw the white boys off the train, but most of their opposition had jumped off the train by the time he got to the right car. Soon afterward, the train was stopped and Powell was arrested, along with eight other African American boys he didn't know.

He was tried before Judge A. E. Hawkins with Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Eugene Williams and Olen Montgomery. It was under Powell's name that an appeal went before the United States Supreme Court ( Powell v. Alabama , 287 U.S. 45 (1932)), which ruled that the defendants did not receive adequate defense counsel.

At Haywood Patterson's third trial at the end of 1933, Ozie Powell's testimony was confused and contradictory. After a tough cross-examination, defense attorney Leibowitz asked him how much schooling he had had in his life. "About three months," was the answer. Patterson was convicted, but the decision was again overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States, this time on grounds that the absence of black jury members denied the defendants equal protection under the law, as required by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Patterson was tried and convicted again in January of 1936. Following the swift group conviction days after the incident, Ozie Powell had been imprisoned without a retrial for five years. While being transported from Patterson's trial back to the Birmingham Jail, he pulled out a pocketknife and slashed Deputy Edgar Blalock in the throat. Sheriff J. Street Sandlin stopped the car, pulled out his gun and shot Powell in the head. Blalock was out of the hospital the same day with ten stitches. Remarkably, Powell also survived.

His mother visited him in the hospital while Powell recovered. "I done give up," he told her. When asked why, he replied, "Cause I feel like everybody in Alabama is down on me and is mad with me." He suffered permanent brain damage from the shooting.

In January 1937 Dr. G. C. Branche examined the Scottsboro defendants and reported that Powell (like Roberson) had an IQ of about 64 and a mental age of nine. A 1937 Life magazine story on the defendants stated that Powell "can barely spell out words. Nobody writes to him."

In July of 1937 Powell pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 20 years. Leibowitz requested that the six years already served be taken into account, but Judge Callahan, noting that the rape charge had been dropped against Powell, gave him the maximum sentence. He was sent to Atmore, the prison for dangerous criminals known as "the murderers' home."

In October of 1938 Powell was driven to the statehouse and an interview with Governor Bibb Graves. Graves decided against granting clemency.

Powell was paroled in 1946 and returned to live in Georgia.

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