The Scottsboro Trial


In 1932, times were hard for many as jobs were not easy to find and people had difficulty putting food on the table. In March of that year, nine black boys ventured out looking for work only to find themselves caught in a series of events that would drastically change their lives. They hopped on a train car where they ran into some white boys also in search of jobs. After getting in a fight, the black boys eventually found themselves charged with raping two white women who were also on the train but in a different car.

Jim Crow ruled the South during the 1930s and nothing could draw a mob faster than an incident between black men and white women. Poor legal representation, biased juries, and spotty evidence led to the boys being sentenced to death. The story of the Scottsboro Nine swept through the country and made world news. The Scottsboro Nine helped to ignite the Civil Rights Movement that would change the face of America.

Overview of Lesson Plan

In this two-day lesson plan, students will explore issues of justice in American history through the Scottsboro trials. They will explore some of the issues that African Americans faced in the Jim Crow South. This lesson plan is a good way to begin talking about segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. It can also be used in conjunction with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Additionally, this in-depth look will allow students to analyze and use primary sources in developing social studies skills.

A PowerPoint is central to this lesson plan, providing historical data, critical thinking questions, and instructions for use of the primary sources. When reading the lesson plan, it will be helpful to have the PowerPoint running so that you can follow along. The PowerPoint is designed for you to show in class as a lecture tool. As you advance through the slides you will see green boxes with questions. Pause at these for student feedback. A few slides prompt the class to begin an activity using primary sources outside of the PowerPoint. You will find these sources under Materials. Again, the green boxes on these slides pose questions corresponding to the primary sources. The PowerPoint and its activities can be a complete lesson plan on their own; however there are additional activities to help students engage the material more thoroughly.


  • Students will be able to identify and describe the events of Scottsboro case.
  • Students will be able to assess and utilize primary sources such as letters, posters, and interviews.
  • Students will be able to critique the justice system under Jim Crow.
  • Students will be able to begin to describe the conditions of African Americans during segregation.
  • Students will be able to analyze the role of these events in the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement.



Day One (45–60 minute class)

  1. Ask the class: "What do you think would happen if our court systems were unfair?" Use the think-pair-share method to get the discussion underway. (5–8 minutes)
  2. Begin the PowerPoint presentation to introduce the lesson. Use the green boxes to initiate short discussions. (5 minutes)
  3. On slide 5 your class will be instructed to look at the first primary source, First Days. This is an account by Roy Wright, the youngest of the Scottsboro Nine. Make copies for your class to read as a group. You may want to have each student read a line. Discuss the question provided in the green box on the slide. (10–15 minutes)
  4. Continue with the PowerPoint until you reach slide 7. Divide your class into groups of four, and hand each group the packet of pamphlets and posters. Ask the class to follow the directions on the slide. Each student in the group should take one poster and begin to analyze it. Then they can pass the posters around so that they can see all of them. This is a great opportunity for students to work together and begin to analyze primary sources. (15–20 minutes)
  5. Bring the class together and discuss what they did in groups. The posters are on the PowerPoint to facilitate the discussion. (5 minutes)
  6. Assign the homework on slide 11. There are four reflection questions that will allow students to process what they have done in class, and students will be asked to think about the next day’s lesson. You may want to print these questions out and give the students hard copies. (2–5 minutes)

Day Two (45–60 minute class)

  1. Review the previous night’s homework as a way to prepare for the lesson. (5–8 minutes)
  2. Begin Part II of the PowerPoint. On slide 14, your class will be invited to look at another primary source, Letter from Ruby Bates to Earl Streetman. Hand out hard copies of this to the class and read together as a group. There are discussion questions in the green box on the slide. (10–15 minutes)
  3. Continue with the PowerPoint to its end. (5–8 minutes)
  4. Have 3–4 pieces of poster size paper taped to the walls around your classroom. Alternatively you can use your board. Ask students to imagine these posters are going to be sent to President Roosevelt, and invite them to voice their opinions about the Scottsboro trials. Students can write no more than a sentence to express their feelings. (5 minutes)
  5. Now lead a brief discussion as a group. You may want to have students first use journals and then share as a group. Possible prompts are: "Hypothesize why it was important that this story gain national or world-wide exposure?" and "Predict how these events would help end segregation and achieve civil rights for all." These questions will help students place the events in the larger context of the American Civil Rights Movement. (10–15 minutes)
  6. Have students choose someone who was involved in these cases—any of the boys, Ruby Bates or Victoria Price, the judges, the lawyers, or even the President of the United States. Ask them to write a letter to that person. They should express how they feel about the cases, offer suggestions or consolations, chastise or question peoples' actions, or commit themselves to take action like the protestors. (10–15 minutes)

Extension and Assessment

  • Have students research the murder of Emmett Till. Ask them to compare the trials of white men and black men in the court systems of the South.
  • Ask students to read poems about the Scottsboro Boys written by Langston Hughes. They can then write their own poems in response to the trials.
  • If students are reading To Kill a Mockingbird, ask them to compare the Scottsboro Nine to Tom Robinson.