Courtroom Battles for Justice: Seeking Equity and Accountability

By Lisa Herndon, Managers, Schomburg Communications and Publicity
May 17, 2021
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Drivers honked their car horns with joy. People shouted “Yes” with relief. Others texted their friends with only the word “Guilty” in their messages. It happened in Harlem on April 20, 2021, and likely in many other places around the world.
 
A jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd, which took place on May 25, 2020. Chauvin used his knee to pin Floyd to the ground by the neck for over nine minutes.
 
The outcome brought hope to the Black community and allies of all races as the legal battles continue in the struggle for racial justice and equality.

Courtroom Battles for Justice,  a two-part blog series, focuses on court cases whose verdicts still spark in-depth discussions. Part 1 highlights trials that symbolized the racial tension when seeking a fair trial, holding police accountable for their actions, and the struggle for voting rights in the U.S.

You can use the Schomburg Center’s resources to learn more about these historic cases.

Scottsboro Boys Trial

The Scottsboro trials, guilty verdicts, and death sentences sparked national and international outrage and protests. Demonstrators included the Finnish Workers Club in 1931.

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5181809

In 1931 nine teenagers—Clarence Norris, Ozie Powell, Andrew Wright, Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Haywood Patterson, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, and Eugene Williams—were falsely accused and wrongly convicted of raping two white women while onboard a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. The trial, death sentences, and retrials of the young men sparked international outrage, peaceful protests, and three U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Resources to learn more:
The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography by Clarence Norris and Sybil D. Washington
In his own words, Norris tells of his 15 years in prison, five of which included death row, the continued harassment, and his life after he jumped parole.
The Scottsboro Boys in Their Own Words: Selected Words, 1931-50 edited by Kwando M. Kinshasa
Kinshasa's book offers insight to the defendants as they lived through the trials, protests, prison time, and appeals as they expressed their thoughts over two decades. The book also includes legal correspondence from attorneys and the members of the Scottsboro’s support committees.
Mother Ada Wright and the International Campaign to Free the Scottsboro Boys, 1931-34 by James A. Miller, Susan D. Pennybacker, and Eve Rosenhaft
The book offers an account of the trials and retrials of this controversial case from a number of voices, including Scottsboro mother Ada Wright.

Los Angeles Police Department and Rodney King

The trial on the police beating of Rodney King sparked conversations and studies about the conduct of police departments across the nation.

Following a high-speed chase, the Los Angeles Police Department brutally beat Rodney King in 1991. Officers struck King, who was intoxicated at the time, with their batons over 50 times in addition to tasering and punching him. King suffered facial fractures, bruises, and contusions. There were over 20 officers at the scence and most were from the LAPD. They were unaware at the time that a civilian captured over a minute of the beating on video.

Although a Los Angeles County grand jury indicted Sergeant Stacey Koon, Officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind for assault, the judge ordered that the trial take place in Simi Valley, California, a predominantly white suburb outside of Los Angeles. A mostly white jury acquitted the officers and were deadlocked on one of the 11 charges. The not guilty verdicts sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Resources to learn more:
Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities prepared by Charles J. Olgetree and Abbe Smith
The book examines racism in the police departments of Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Norfolk, Virginia.
African American Culture and Society After Rodney King: Provocations and Protests, Progression and “Post-Radicalism edited by Josephine Metcalf and Carina Spaulding
Twenty-years after the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles, the book looks at the state of race in America, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the Black middle class, and African American culture.

Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder

This case involved the constitutionality of portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, which required certain states and local governments to clear any changes to its voting laws and practices in advance with federal authorities. Shelby County, Alabama sued then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. In a five to four decision in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shelby County, striking down the provisions. The decision paved the way for changes in voting laws for states such as in Georgia in 2021.

Authors Carol Anderson (One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy), Ari Berman (Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America), Martha S. Jones (Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All), and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis (co-author, Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing) discuss the landmark case and the history of the Black vote in the 2020 talk, Fighting for the Franchise: A Century of Struggle for Voting Rights.

Book Picks for More Research

Continue the conversation on court cases whose decisions have impact the Black community long after their verdicts.

Looking to learn more about legal cases that impacted the Black community? Visit the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division to read the following books.

Resources to learn more:
African-American Males and the Law: Cases and Materials by Floyd D. Weatherspoon
This book discusses the challenges and discriminations Black men face in the legal system.
Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste by Mark S. Weiner
From colonial times to the present, the book tells how the legal status of Black people has evolved through the courts.
Race, Law, and American Society: 1607-Present by Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
This book traces the legal discrimination of Black people from colonial times until the present day.
Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America's Civil Rights Murders by Renee C. Romano
Romano looks at the prosecution of murders that took place during the Civil Rights era such as the Mississippi v. Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of activist Medgar Evers.
 

 

Don't miss part two of Courtroom Battles for Justice. The final installment focuses on high profile activists whose work to help Black people brought attention from law enforcement looking to suppress their efforts.

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