MONTGOMERY — It began 81 years ago, with young black and white men and boys, a white woman and a girl on a train between Chattanooga and Paint Rock in Northeast Alabama.
Within days, eight of the nine young blacks would be convicted of raping the woman and girl and sentenced to death in Alabama’s electric chair. A 12-year-old black boy would be sentenced to life in prison.
Eventually no one was executed and all were released from prison, their lives ruined by the miscarriage of justice. In 1976, after decades of hiding, one of the nine, Clarence Norris, was pardoned by the state of Alabama.
Now, a north Alabama woman and a writer want final closure to the travesty known to history as the Scottsboro Boys Case, which awakened a nation to just how things were done in the Jim Crow system of the Deep South.
Norris was the last known living Scottsboro Boy at the time of his pardon, which came following efforts by the NAACP, two black Alabama lawyers and former Attorney General Bill Baxley. The pardon was signed by former Gov. George Wallace. Norris died in 1989.
Fast forward to 2010, when Shelia Washington opened the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro, where the trials for the nine were held.
Washington, the museum’s director, and Huntsville graduate student and writer Thomas Reidy are pushing to clear the other eight posthumously.
“Closure is what I’m looking for,” Washington said in a recent telephone interview. “It shouldn’t go on and on.”
Washington is a retired Scottsboro city employee who does outreach for children to protect them from pornography.
She wants exoneration for the nine — or at least the eight, since Norris already received a pardon. “I don’t think they had done anything they need pardoning for,” Washington said. “Exonerated.”
Washington said the perfect scenario would be for Republican Gov. Robert Bentley to call a special legislative session in October to consider legislation exonerating the nine, Oct. 25 being the date Norris received his pardon.
Bentley said he won’t call a special session, but he’ll support attempts to bring finality to the ugly incident when the 2013 legislative session begins in February. Jackson County legislators said they will sponsor the appropriate measure.
“We need to get closure on this,” Bentley said. “If they bring me something, I’ll sign it.”
State Rep. John Robinson, D-Scottsboro, lives in a cottage built by the physician who examined the alleged rape victims in 1931.
Robinson said his parents often talked about the thousands of people with “rifles and pistols” who came down from Sand Mountain to Scottsboro’s downtown and congregated near the jail after word spread that blacks had raped two white women.
Robinson credits Sheriff Matt Wann with stopping a sure mass lynching by telling the mob that he’d shoot the first person who tried. The crowd dispersed, the National Guard was called out and the prisoners were taken secretly to Gadsden for protection until their indictments and trial.
Of course there were no blacks on either grand or petit juries, and the defendants went without adequate legal representation.
Reidy is a part-time instructor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and works with UAH’s New College that supports the Scottsboro museum. He is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Alabama. His area of expertise is the antebellum South, and he said his doctorate research led him to Norris’s 1976 pardon.
He said he was asked to write a story about the pardon for the Alabama Heritage magazine. The published article is “Awaiting Justice.”
“That’s how it came about,” Reidy said. “I think the story has a lot of legs and won’t go away because we haven’t finished writing the final chapter. As it stands today, these are still considered criminals, which they weren’t.”
Reidy believes the nine committed no crime. Because of Jim Crow laws and the prevailing attitude toward blacks, Alabama’s judicial system in the 1930s was a total farce for blacks.
The Scottsboro Boys case seems to come up every generation as new Alabamians learn of one of the darkest days in the state’s history, that pricked the national conscience and helped begin the push for equal legal rights for black Americans. Some say it began the modern civil rights movement.
Armed residents of Paint Rock, a community in western Jackson County, stopped a train on March 25, 1931, and arrested three young black men and six boys on assault charges. Some whites said they had been thrown from the train farther east.
In addition to Norris, 19 at the time, the eight were Andy Wright, 19; Haywood Patterson, 18; Olen Montgomery, 17; Ozzie Powell, 16; Willie Roberson, 16; Charlie Weems, 16; Eugene Williams, 13; and Andy Wright’s brother, 12-year-old Roy.
The “deputies” soon discovered two white train riders, 17-year-old Ruby Bates and 25-year-old Victoria Price. They hollered rape, which was a death penalty crime at the time, certainly for blacks.
It took only 15 days for the convictions and sentences on circumstantial evidence, based on the testimony of the two women and fearful confessions by some of the men. A broken-down lawyer from Chattanooga handled their defense.
Denials and doubt didn’t sway anyone. Bates later recanted, but Price stuck by her story the rest of her life.
By 1933, retrials in Decatur began for Patterson and Norris. They were convicted and resentenced to death. Again there were no blacks on the jury.
The Alabama Supreme Court found no procedural errors in the trials. The U.S. Supreme Court found violations and twice reversed convictions, but didn’t rule the defendants innocent and simply ordered retrials.
The retrials again produced long prison sentences or death penalties. Some defendants ultimately were paroled and charges were dropped against others. The last got out of prison in 1950.
A photographic display in the foyer of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reminds the world of the miscarriage of justice.
Milton Davis is a Tuskegee attorney and was an assistant attorney general in 1976 under Baxley. He helped Norris get a pardon.
“This issue is very important because it was a colossal case … complete absence of equality under the law,” Davis said. “It also sparked a sense of outrage throughout the U.S. almost like the Civil War by people who came to the defense of blacks.
“I think there should be an effort to clear everyone’s name,” Davis said.
Donald V. Watkins was Norris’ attorney in 1976. He believes the Board of Pardons and Parole has the legal authority to grant posthumous pardons to the other eight because of a finding of innocence in Norris’s pardon.
“In order for the state to pardon Clarence, the board had to enter the facts that proclaimed detailed factual findings around the alleged rape of the two women,” Watkins said. “That goes to the other eight.
“The beauty of Clarence Norris’ pardon was all of the facts and evidence were examined by the attorney general’s office, and the Pardons and Parole Board found there was no rape and they should not have been charged,” Watkins said. “I think they can issue posthumous pardon based on findings made in 1976.”
Reidy had been talking with the Board of Pardons and Parole for the last eight or nine months and with Washington was preparing a request for a posthumous pardon for the eight defendants.
Greg Griffin, an assistant attorney general and the general counsel for the Board of Pardons and Parole, said the board cannot issue a pardon because it’s not allowed by its internal policies.
“We don’t have the authority to grant a pardon to dead people,” Griffin said. “However, the board can consider a resolution presented to it.”
Robinson said he and Sen. Shad McGill, R-Woodville, plan to sponsor a bill or a resolution in the 2013 legislative session for a pardon, or something. Robinson said the proper document will have to be researched.
“I’d like to lay it to rest,” Robinson said. “There will always be a stigma on Scottsboro. I think the people of Scottsboro want them to be exonerated. That’s the last good thing we could do for them.”