Faculty, Students Facilitate Historic Legislation

John Miller and Dr. Ellen Spears were part of efforts to pass legislation exonerating nine men known as the Scottsboro Boys, who were wrongfully accused of rape in 1931. Continued efforts with partners from the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and others has led to posthumous pardons for the remaining defendants who were not pardoned during their lifetime.
John Miller and Dr. Ellen Spears were part of efforts to pass legislation exonerating nine men known as the Scottsboro Boys, who were wrongfully accused of rape in 1931. Continued efforts with partners from the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and others has led to posthumous pardons for the remaining defendants who were not pardoned during their lifetime.

More than 80 years after the infamous case of the Scottsboro Boys, the records of the nine men who were wrongfully accused of rape may finally be cleared once and for all. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a formal resolution exonerating all nine of the Scottsboro Boys. They also unanimously passed a historic bill that provides the legal recourse for posthumous pardons, known as the Scottsboro Boys Act. Gov. Robert Bentley signed the act into law at a ceremony at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center this spring.

Many individuals, including faculty and students with ties to the College of Arts and Sciences, worked hand in hand to research history and get the legislation passed.

Spearheading the effort in partnership with UA was Shelia Washington, director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. A Scottsboro native, Washington grew up with the story of the Scottsboro Boys. As a teenager she found a book about Haywood Patterson, one of the nine men, hidden under her parents’ bed. When her father saw her reading it, he forbid her to continue, telling her that “there was too much harmful stuff in there.” She later read the book as an adult and felt compelled to learn more about Scottsboro’s shameful past that no one wanted to talk about.

Washington worked in the mayor’s office for 20 years, and each time a new mayor came into office she asked about pursuing a pardon for the Scottsboro Boys. At each mention, Washington was told to let “sleeping dogs lie.”

For many years, Washington kept the story alive by getting the local paper to write about it during Black History month. Washington and supporters of the cause created the Scottsboro Multicultural Foundation, which later founded the museum in the Joyce Chapel United Methodist Church, the oldest standing African American church in Jackson County.

“Everything felt right about this church,” she said. “When I walked in it just felt like the right place, the final resting place to tell their stories and tell the truth,” Washington said. But Washington still felt more work needed to be done. Realizing that a significant amount of historical research would be required to set the stage for the pardon process, Washington reached out for support and built partnerships through a consortium of higher-education institutions that included The University of Alabama, Alabama A&M University, Auburn University, and Tuskegee University.

The partnership with UA was strengthened by a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Ford Foundation. The grant provided the framework for students to interpret the historic places associated with the Scottsboro Boys as part of a project initiated by Dr. Ellen Griffith Spears, a professor in New College and the Department of American Studies. The project, which won an award from the UA Center for Community-Based Partnerships, produced a website for the museum as well as promotional materials to raise awareness about the Scottsboro Boys cases.

One student in particular added impetus to a review of the Scottsboro cases. Tom Reidy, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, conducted historical research on the 1976 pardon of Clarence Norris and wrote an article in the summer 2012 edition of Alabama Heritage magazine. While Reidy’s article focused more heavily on Norris’s pardon, it also called attention to the fact that the other Scottsboro Boys were never pardoned, despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence.

Bolstered by this publicity, Washington and Spears ramped up efforts to gain posthumous pardons for the remaining defendants. While a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Robert Bentley gained momentum, the approach was challenging because under Alabama law the governor does not have the authority to grant pardons. Only the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles could do so, but its authority to grant posthumous pardons is limited to convictions for Jim Crow–era laws under the Rosa Parks Act.

John Miller, assistant professor and assistant director of New College, joined in the efforts and began discussing with the group ways around this impasse. Miller, who is an attorney, suggested legislation in the spirit of the Rosa Parks Act.

Subsequently, the group decided to approach the issue through two avenues: a legal mechanism for posthumous pardon legislation and model language for a legislative resolution formally exonerating all nine defendants. After the legislature’s unanimous approval of both measures, the resolution of exoneration was effective immediately and the mechanism for posthumous pardons took effect this summer.

The final step was to petition the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. Miller and circuit judges from Morgan and Jackson Counties, where trials were held for the Scottsboro defendants, contributed to the petition. Supporting documentation for the petition include affidavits gathered by Miller asserting compelling reasons to grant the pardons. Miller obtained statements from Dan Carter and Jim Goodman, historians who have each published books on the Scottsboro Boys; from Fred Gray, a noted civil rights attorney whose law firm represented Clarence Norris during his pardon bid; and from Bill Baxley, who served as Alabama attorney general at the time of Norris’s 1976 pardon.

The official petition was submitted in October. At a hearing on November 21, the board officially reviewed the petition and granted posthumous pardons to the remaining defendants who had not been pardoned during their lifetime: Charlie Weems, Haywood Patterson, and Andy Wright. The convictions of Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright were overturned in 1937. Clarence Norris was pardoned in 1976.

“You can’t make something right in history,” Miller said. “But you can call attention to the importance of an event by seeking to redress a wrong from the present.”

Spears said it has been rewarding to see so many individuals come together for a common goal. “Scholarly research is often seen as a kind of solitary task, but the message of this process has been collaborate, collaborate, collaborate,” she said.

Spears says the plight of these men and the injustice done to them continues to be a salient point in today’s society because it links the past with the progress that is still required for the future. “This is just a small measure of recognition that does not undo the injustice that was done to these men,” Spears said, “but young people today can learn from this history.”

Miller believes the key to the progress made so far is the particular moment in history in which we are living. While 80 years may seem like a long time, it appears that the state and the public are finally ready to accept this past and move forward.

“What you hope to do with something like this is to make people think about what would happen now,” he said.

An exhibit of photographs and artifacts related to the Scottsboro Boys cases will be on display at the Paul R. Jones Gallery at 2308 Sixth Street in downtown Tuscaloosa January 10–February 21. The exhibit will be free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Monday–Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except the first Friday of each month, when it is open from noon to 8 p.m.