The Alabama Legislature has created a path to pardon for nine black teenagers known as the Scottsboro boys, who were falsely accused of raping two white women more than eight decades ago in one of the more infamous episodes in the racist South.
On Thursday -- the 45th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. -- the Alabama House unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the teens. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
Under the bill, a petition would need to be filed for each of the men, all of whom are dead. The parole board would then decide whether to grant a pardon.
For its advocates, the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.
“This is great for Alabama. It was long overdue,” Democratic state Rep. Laura Hall of Huntsville, who sponsored the bill in the House, told reporters.
“Their lives were ruined by the convictions,” Republican state Sen. Arthur Orr said, according to the Associated Press. “By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago.”
The case has become the stuff of lore, told and retold in books, music and theaters. The nine black teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 19 were subjected to a legal frame-up, biased all-white juries and an attempted lynching. They were convicted on testimony by witnesses who later recanted.
In 1931, a freight train was traveling from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Memphis during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, when grabbing a ride on the rails was the only way many of the unemployed could travel.
Several white men left the train and told authorities they had been attacked by a group of African Americans. Deputies searched the train at Paint Rock, Ala., and arrested the group that became known as the Scottsboro boys. Two women said they had been raped by the blacks on the train. (One of the women later recanted and said neither had been touched by a black man, but that came too late.)
What followed was a sad legal saga. All but the 13-year-old were convicted and sentenced to death in a series of hasty trials. The cases were appealed and retried three times, with the defendants spending years in custody.
All but the youngest was on death row for a while; one was shot to death in prison by a guard; two escaped, were caught and sent back to prison. One managed to escape and was in hiding for 30 years until Alabama Gov. George Wallace pardoned him in 1976.
While officials were touting the passage of the bill as an example of the state’s efforts to correct misdeeds of the past, some were wondering about the current Alabama.
Benjamin Jealous, president and chief executive of the NAACP, applauded the correction of a “historic miscarriage of justice.” But he said Alabama is involved in a Supreme Court case over the Voting Rights Act and has passed laws that critics say are discriminatory against immigrants illegally in the United States.
“Like so many communities that have had tried to move beyond their ugliest chapters, Alabama has learned you can only move forward if you are honest about your past,” Jealous told the AP. “It’s heartening that this was a unanimous vote.”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “Alabama still needs to confront its present.”