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Last of 'Scottsboro Boys' pardoned, closing South's infamous case

November 21, 2013|By Michael Muskal

The Alabama parole board on Thursday granted posthumous pardons in the "Scottsboro Boys" rape case, seeking to correct one of the more infamous racist cases that scarred the Deep South in the 1930s and that has reverberated through the nation’s consciousness ever since.

The board unanimously approved a petition granting a posthumous pardon to three of the group who still had convictions on their records. The pardons had been expected since the Alabama Legislature passed a law in the spring to allow the board to grant pardons for crimes older than 75 years — a move specifically directed at closing the last part of the case.

The case had all the elements that marked the South’s heritage of racism from its days of slavery. It included a frame-up on the charges, a recanting by a key witness, conviction by an all-white jury, angry mobs and an attempted lynching. The case helped mobilize popular outrage against race-based justice, redefined how juries were chosen and was even immortalized in popular culture including a recent theater production based on the incident.

On March 25, 1931, about a dozen people were traveling illegally on a freight train from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Memphis. Several whites jumped off the train and reported to the sheriff they had been attacked by a group of blacks. The sheriff and his posse stopped the train in Alabama and arrested nine blacks. Authorities also said they found two white girls who had accused the blacks of rape.

The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Ala., where the defendants — known thereafter to history as the Scottsboro Boys — received poor legal representation. All but 13-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death, the usual sentence at the time for blacks convicted of raping a white woman.

All the Scottsboro Boys served jail time, but the state eventually dropped rape charges against five of the defendants.

Three others, Haywood Patterson, Charlie Weems and Andy Wright, were convicted of the rape charges in 1937 and received stiff prison sentences after a six-year process that included at least three trials, two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on defendants' rights to attorneys and on the racial composition of jury pools. 

The Alabama board on Thursday granted those three posthumous pardons.

Also convicted in 1937 was Clarence Norris, the only one to be sentenced to death. He eventually escaped parole and went into hiding in 1946.  In 1976 he was pardoned by then-Gov. George C. Wallace.


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