Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Scottsboro boys officially pardoned

In the moments right after Sheila Washington, founder and director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, found out that her quest to pardon the last three Scottsboro Boys was successful, she said she was sad at first.

“I looked around in the room, and I thought ‘Wow, no family here for the Scottsboro family,’” she said. “I got teary-eyed and sad and thought, ‘Maybe we did wait too long.’”

Then, she said, a thought came to her mind that made her feel alright.

“You are the family of the Scottsboro Boys,” she said she thought to herself.

Washington was 17 when she first read a book about the 1930s case in which nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping a white woman.

“My heart really hurt, and I thought one day, ‘I’m going to do something for the Scottsboro Boys’ – get a place, put my book on the table, burn a candle,” she said. “As I got older, it got bigger.”

On Dec. 5, 2009, Washington got the keys to a chapel that traces its roots back to a church built by former slaves more than 130 years ago. Later, on Feb. 1, 2010, she opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.

Then, she set to work clearing the name of the last three Scottsboro Boys who had not had their charges dropped or pardoned.

“They became my brothers, and I had to get justice done for them. It wasn’t fair that the others were free and these three were left undone,” Washington said. “It was long overdue, but we got it done.”

The three posthumous, full and unconditional pardons for the Scottsboro Boys, granted on Nov. 21, were the result of campaigning, legislating and researching on multiple fronts – one of which was the work of UA faculty and students.

John Miller, assistant director of New College, helped spearhead the preparation of the petition that was submitted to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. He also helped collect affidavits from Scottsboro experts. He said the work was a reminder that the work of academic institutions is not impractical or insulated.

“As a public university, I think that we have an obligation to the state in which we operate to lend our skill sets to communities in ways that better the state, and I think that this is an example of that,” Miller said.

Miller and other faculty also contributed to two pieces of important legislation along the way – one making the pardons possible, the other exonerating the Scottsboro Boys. Both passed the Alabama legislature unanimously.

“The idea is to sort of create a legislative monument, for lack of a better term, to call attention to situations like theirs,” Miller said. “People will say that this is merely symbolic and all it is is posturing. I disagree with that. I think a posthumous pardon is an important signal to be sent on the behalf of a justice system. What it says is that judicial systems are not perfect but that they will take actions to address wrongs. It shouldn’t take 80 years for justice systems to do that, but the fact that we have law now in Alabama for a justice system to try and do the right thing after the fact shows getting it right is more important than merely finishing it.”

The partnership between the University and the SBMACC, which began with students performing general research and public relations work for the center, eventually sent students across northern Alabama in pursuit of relevant information. Tom Reidy, a graduate history student, wrote an article for Alabama Heritage highlighting the efforts. Other students went to sites and archives to pull together information that will result in two exhibits about the case.

Ellen Spears, a professor in New College, said she tells her students they are making history in two ways.

“One is they’re digging up research and helping to write the history. But they also were able to make history in helping facilitate this legal change – the real, practical public policy effect of clearing these men’s names in the legal record,” Spears said. “And so they’re making history in that way as well. And there’s nothing more educational than that.”

This is not the first time the opportunity to make that history has been present – in the 1930s, shortly after the original convictions, pardons were nearly granted to the still-living defendants.

“The political will simply wasn’t there,” Miller said.

Since 1931, the world has somewhat lost track of the Scottsboro Boys themselves. All were tried, convicted and imprisoned – but over time, charges were overturned, dropped or thrown out. It is generally assumed that they took new names and quietly moved elsewhere: one to seminary in the Midwest, some away from and then back to the South. One, Clarence Norris (by then, “Willie”), moved to Brooklyn, where he resurfaced in the 1970s seeking a pardon, which was granted by Gov. George Wallace.

“Which leaves three,” Miller said.

Almost immediately, the campaign to have those three pardoned hit a snag. In Alabama, the governor does not have pardoning authority, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles, at the time of the original request, could not grant posthumous pardons. Washington, Miller and several senators had to create a legislative mechanism for the pardons to occur.

Senator Arthur Orr, a Republican from Decatur, Ala., sponsored the bill that created a mechanism for a posthumous pardon. He said the unanimous passing of the legislation is a signal that Alabama has moved past the political and racial lines that originally marked the case.

“I think the press members I talked to and interviewers were interested that the state would take such a step, and [that] it was so non-controversial,” he said. “That sends a message nationally and internationally that we are a different state.”

Closer to home, Orr was motivated by the fact that Decatur, Ala., – where several of the trials took place – had nothing to commemorate the case, which he said had significant impact on the civil justice system. A historical marker, he said, will be put up by the site of the original courthouse, reminding and referencing the nine defendants and the Judge James Horton, a local judge who essentially lost his career by setting aside Haywood Patterson’s guilty verdict.

“The courthouse where the trials were held has long since been razed. We had nothing really here locally commemorating what went on. It’s perhaps something the community preferred not to remember,” Orr said. “[The marker will] be a better ending to a very tragic story in our state’s history.”

Washington, too, is choosing to mark history after making it. She is not planning to bask in her success or end her efforts. Her next project is to track down the graves of each of the Scottsboro Boys and place a historical marker. She’s already made an appointment with the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., to discuss marking two known graves there.

In January and February of next year, students will have the opportunity to see a traveling exhibit of photographs from the Decatur trials at the University of Alabama’s Paul R. Jones Gallery. “To See Justice Done,” an online exhibit of letters, is also available through the Alabama Digital Humanities Center. Washington said people from the justice system and Civil Rights leaders who overlooked the Scottsboro Boys or stayed silent have failed them over the years.

In the end, Washington said she was overjoyed to see the pardons, and to know what they meant for an 80-year-old case that she said has made history over and over again. The final three pardons, she said, are a measure of freedom and a literal rewriting of the history books.

“The Scottsboro Boys have found their place in history again as not guilty,” Washington said. “The end of the book will have to be rewritten.”


More to Discover