82-year-old civil rights case revived in Alabama

Members of the Alabama National Guard escort the Scottsboro Boys into the Morgan County Courthouse in this 1933 photo. Ho,AP Photo/The Decatur Daily

MONTGOMERY, Ala. In 1931, Alabama wanted to execute the black Scottsboro Boys because two white women claimed they were gang-raped. Now, state officials are trying to exonerate them in a famous case from the segregated South that some consider the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

Two Democratic and two Republican legislators unveiled proposals Monday for the legislative session starting Tuesday. A resolution labels the Scottsboro Boys as "victims of a series of gross injustice" and declares them exonerated. A companion bill gives the state parole board the power to issue posthumous pardons.

Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur said Alabama can't change history, "but that does not that mean we should not take steps today to address things that we can here in the 21st century that might not have been as they should have been."

Gov. Robert Bentley's press secretary, Jennifer Ardis, said he supports the effort to pardon the Scottsboro Boys and believes "it's time to right this wrong."

Sheila Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro, started organizing the effort after the museum opened in 2010.

The museum chronicles how race and sex intersected in the segregated South on March 25, 1931, when a sheriff's posse stopped a train at Paint Rock. Nine black youths, ages 12 to 19, were hoboing on the train and thought they were being arrested for fighting with whites on the train. Instead, they were accused of gang-raping two white women who were also riding the freight train.

The nine, from Georgia and Tennessee, went on trial in Scottsboro and were convicted by an all-white jury. All but the youngest received a death sentence but later won new trials. One of the women recanted her story. Five of the Scottsboro Boys eventually had the rape charges dropped, while four were convicted during their retrials.

In 1976, the only known living Scottsboro Boy, Clarence Norris, obtained a pardon from then-Gov. George C. Wallace and the state parole board. At the time, there was talk of trying to do something for Andy and Roy Wright, Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, William Roberson and Eugene Williams. But nothing happened, and then little was said after Norris died in 1989.

Washington called the new legislative effort "a triumph for me."

"It's long overdue. It's almost 83 years old, but the case will never die as long as there is a courtroom to present justice in," she said.

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