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Alabama Pardons Scottsboro Boys 82 Years After Injustice

Alabama to Pardon Scottsboro Boys 82 Years After Landmark Case
This file photo from July 1937 shows the four freed Scottsboro boys with their counsel Samuel Leibowitz waving to a crowd from a stage. Source: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

April 8 (Bloomberg) -- Eighty-two years ago, all-white juries in Alabama imposed the death sentence on eight black teens falsely accused of raping two white women, setting the stage for a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Now, the Scottsboro Boys are poised to be pardoned.

Jeremy King, a spokesman for Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, said he expects a bill to be signed this week allowing the posthumous pardons, reversing convictions that became a symbol of racial injustice in a case that led to the end of black exclusion from juries in the South.

The Republican governor “is supportive of clearing the names of the Scottsboro Boys,” King said by e-mail.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the measure last week in a vote that will put a new ending on a dark chapter in Alabama’s history, said state Senator Arthur Orr, a Republican co-sponsor of the legislation whose district includes Scottsboro.

“It shows Alabama is a different place than it was in the 1930s or even in the 1960s,” Orr said in a telephone interview.

The case originated during the Depression, in 1931, after an altercation between two groups of teens -- one black, one white -- riding illegally on a train in northern Alabama. The white riders complained to police, who searched the train and found nine black boys and two white women, both of whom said they had been raped.

Eight of the nine teenagers were convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries.

Both of the women were discredited during a series of appeals, and one later recanted her claim. The Communist Party represented the Scottsboro boys in the appeals, winning reduced sentences for some of the convicted.

Surprise Action

The unanimous embrace of the Scottsboro pardons surprised Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She said lawmakers might have been motivated by Alabama’s leading role in a challenge to the Voting Rights Act, now pending before the Supreme Court.

“The timing is at the very least ironic,” Glisson said in a phone interview.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires states with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the U.S. Justice Department before making changes in election laws.

‘Historic Miscarriage’

Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also mentioned the voting rights case, while calling the pardons a correction of “an historic miscarriage of justice.”

“Unfortunately, Alabama still needs to confront its present,” Jealous said in a statement. “Its law targeting undocumented workers is a human-rights catastrophe. Its lawsuit against the Voting Rights Act threatens to create many more. It needs to realize the error of its ways now, not 80 years from now.”

The pardon legislation was pushed by a Scottsboro woman, Sheila Washington, who opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum there in 2010.

She said she wished the pardons had happened while the men were still alive. She also said the show of support from state leaders surprised her.

“There are still people in Alabama that think the Scottsboro Boys were guilty,” Washington said in a telephone interview. “They come into the museum and say so.”

To date, only one of the men has received a pardon. Former Alabama Governor George Wallace pardoned Clarence Norris in 1976.

Norris was the last surviving Scottsboro Boy when he died in 1989, after spending most of his remaining life in New York City, said his step-niece, Peggy Parks Miller, 60.

Miller said she telephoned Orr and Washington in tears last week after learning that all of the men would be pardoned.

For years, Miller said in an interview, her family had “talked about the situation in whispers.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at mnewkirk@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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