If there was a league for lawyers displaying courage on behalf of their clients, then New Yorker Samuel Leibowitz would rank high in the table for his defence of the Scottsboro Boys, who were accused of raping two white girls in Alabama in 1931.

In those days in the Deep South, for a woman even to allege she had been raped by an Afro-American was sufficient proof for a conviction. There had been a fight between seven black youths and a group of white boys, which ended in the whites being thrown off a freight train. The Scottsboro Boys were arrested, along with Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.

It was then that Price, metamorphosing from hobo to victim, alleged she had been attacked. Within a week, all but one of the youths were convicted and sentenced to death – with a band outside the court playing There’ll be a Hot Time in Old Town Tonight.  

In November 1932 the US Supreme Court overturned the convictions on the ground the defendants had been denied effective counsel. When Clarence Darrow declined to act in the retrial because he believed the case was being run by the Communist Party, Leibowitz was approached to take the brief without fee and paying his own expenses.

He would, however, be free to conduct the cases as he wished.   

He found himself in a pressure cauldron. After Leibowitz showed that not a single black person had ever been selected to sit on a jury, there were threats to lynch him as well as the boys. Prosecutor Thomas Knight privately tried to persuade Leibowitz’s wife to go back to New York and safety. She refused. That night, crosses were burned outside their lodgings.

After Leibowitz had destroyed Victoria Price in cross-examination, there was a Klan meeting at which it was suggested that he not be allowed to leave town alive. A leaflet – Kill the Jew from New York – was sold at 50 cents a copy. The next day Judge Horton told the court that the National Guard would be expected to shoot demonstrators.

The boys were again convicted but Horton quashed the verdict. After a third trial in 1937, Leibowitz negotiated that four of the boys who had served six and a half years be released, arranging for them to be smuggled to Cincinnati.

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor