The legacy of the “Scottsboro Boys” is secure: The nine black teens were wrongly convicted more than 80 years ago in one of America’s most infamous racial tragedies. Alabama is now moving to repair its own legacy, and correct past injustices, with a bill to allow posthumous pardons for the group.
On Thursday, the state House voted 103-0 in favor of legislation setting up a procedure to pardon the teens, who were falsely accused of rape by two white women in 1931. The Senate had passed the bill earlier, 29-0. Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he will sign it.
“This is great for Alabama. It was long overdue,” said Democratic state Rep. Laura Hall of Huntsville, who sponsored the bill in the House.
The Senate sponsor, Republican Arthur Orr, said it was unfortunate that the pardons are coming after all the Scottsboro Boys have died — but the bill lets Alabama write a “better final chapter.”
“Their lives were ruined by the convictions,” he said. “By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago.”
All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were imprisoned on death row after convictions by all-white juries. All were eventually freed without executions, although several suffered for many years in prison.
The last of the men died in 1989.
Their celebrated case has been memorialized in songs, books, museums, films and a 2010 Broadway play. Their twisting legal saga set important precedents, including Supreme Court decisions outlawing the practice of systematically excluding black people from juries and guaranteeing the right to effective counsel.
“You can’t change history,” said House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a Republican. “But you can take steps to right the wrongs of the past. The fact that this passed unanimously shows that today’s 21st century Alabama is far removed from the one that caused such pain for so many so long ago.”
That distance is still being measured.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, applauded the correction of “an historic miscarriage of justice.” But he noted that Alabama is involved in a Supreme Court case over the Voting Rights Act and has passed laws that critics say are discriminatory against immigrants in the country illegally.
“Like so many communities that have had tried to move beyond their ugliest chapters, Alabama has learned you can only move forward if you are honest about your past,” Jealous said. “It’s heartening that this was a unanimous vote.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “Alabama still needs to confront its present.”
Susan Glisson, executive director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, also was gladdened by the measure. “It is an opportunity for us to understand that period, especially the ways in which blacks were deemed inferior and therefore not worthy of equal treatment before the law,” she said.
But she found it ironic that it happened while Alabama is challenging its requirements under the Voting Rights Act, and said that the amount of time it took to pass may lead some to consider it an “empty gesture.”
“For those of us who care about where our country’s headed, I would hope we would take the opportunity to ask difficult questions about what reconciliation really means and also to understand the critical role that education and justice plays in its accomplishment,” Glisson said.
The episode began on a freight train traveling through Alabama during the Great Depression.
During that time, many people would sneak aboard for free rides between cities. There was a fight between whites and blacks on the train, and the two women made the false rape accusations in hopes of avoiding arrest.
Lynch mobs gathered outside the jail, but were warned off by the white sheriff and rebuffed by National Guardsmen called in by the governor.
After the defendants were convicted, the Communist Party seized on the case as an opportunity to make inroads among black people and liberals. It got one of its lawyers named as defense counsel, and also secured the services of famed defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz.
There were years of appeals — some successful, as one of the women recanted and said their claim was a lie.
Decades later, when the idea of pardons was raised, the governor and parole board said they didn’t have the legal authority to pardon the deceased. But Sheila Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, which opened in 2010, pursued the legislation.
Washington said Thursday that the pardons would finally shine a light on “this dark injustice.”
If the governor signs the bill as expected, a petition would need to be filed for each of the men, said Eddie Cook, executive director of the state parole board. The parole board would then decide whether to grant each pardon.
Previously, there had not been a procedure for pardoning someone who is dead.