ATLANTA — More than 80 years after they were falsely accused and wrongly convicted in the rapes of two white women in north Alabama, three black men received posthumous pardons Thursday, essentially absolving the last of the “Scottsboro Boys” of criminal misconduct and closing one of the most notorious chapters of the South’s racial history.
The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously in Montgomery to issue the pardons to Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright, all of whom were repeatedly convicted of the rapes in the 1930s.
Thursday’s vote ended a case that yielded two landmark Supreme Court opinions — one about the inclusion of blacks on juries and another about the need for adequate legal representation at trial — but continued to hang over Alabama as an enduring mark of a tainted, racist past.
“It’s certainly something that when people hear it, they automatically associate it with the state in a negative manner,” said John Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who helped prepare the pardon petition.
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The three were among the group of nine teenagers first tried in April 1931 after a fight between blacks and whites aboard a train passing through Jackson County, in Alabama’s northeastern corner, led to accusations of sexual assault. Within weeks of the reported rapes, an Alabama judge had sentenced eight of them to death after their convictions by all-white juries. The trial of the youngest defendant, Roy Wright, ended in a hung jury amid a dispute about whether he should be executed, and he was never retried.
The U.S. Supreme Court intervened the following year, setting off a long stretch of additional appeals and trials, including one in 1933 where Ruby Bates, one of the accusers, recanted her story.
Prosecutors dropped the rape charges against five of the men in July 1937, but four others — including those pardoned Thursday — were convicted again and initially sentenced to death or decades in prison.
State officials ultimately agreed to release three on parole, including Clarence Norris, who was pardoned by Gov. George Wallace in 1976. Patterson escaped from prison and fled to Michigan.
The legal wrangling became a cultural mainstay, the subject of books, songs and a Broadway production.
Sheila Washington’s interest in the Scottsboro Boys was born after she came across a copy of Patterson’s memoir under her parents’ bed when she was 17, read it and vowed to help the men get justice. She later founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and, in 2009, began a campaign to seek pardons for the men, with the backing of researchers and lawyers throughout the state.
“I think we all realized that the convictions had been a terrible injustice,” said Judge Steven Haddock, who became a supporter.
Washington quickly learned that while Alabama officials were willing to consider pardons, they lacked the legal mechanism to grant them posthumously.
Washington’s efforts led her to state Sen. Arthur Orr, a white lawmaker from Decatur, a city about an hour from Scottsboro. He and other legislators agreed to sponsor a measure, unanimously approved this year, that allowed Alabama authorities to issue pardons in select felony cases “to remedy social injustice associated with racial discrimination.”
On Thursday, Orr said the legislation and the hearing it prompted had amounted to a moment of catharsis for Alabama. “Today is a reminder that it is never too late to right a wrong,” he said.
For Washington, it felt like the satisfaction of a lifetime’s work. “I believe the boys can rest now,” she said.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.