BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The founder of a museum devoted to the Scottsboro Boys wants to give the defendants in the landmark case something that eluded most of them during their lifetimes: a pardon from the state of Alabama.
Sheila Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, this week asked Gov. Robert Bentley to clear the names of eight of the nine defendants wrongly convicted of raping two white women in 1931. “They were done wrong, and justice should be corrected,” Washington said.
One of the Scottsboro Boys was pardoned in 1976. Clarence Norris was believed at the time to be the only defendant still living. He, too, has since died.
Washington said she believes the state needs to set the record straight for the other defendants, even though charges were ultimately dropped against some of them while they were alive. “I feel like this is the closure,” she said.
Her quest has won support from professors, lawyers and legislators. Her letter to Bentley, dated Aug. 15, is co-signed by more than a dozen people, most of them affiliated with universities.
“A resolution of pardon will provide a chance to affirm our mutual interests in supporting justice and equality in twenty-first century Alabama,” the letter says. “The resolution does not change the past, but it can help shape the future.”
Bentley absolutely agrees the pardons are merited, said his spokesman, Jeremy King. “It’s time to right this wrong,” King said. “It’s time to officially clear their names.”
But King said the governor believes he lacks the authority to act on Washington’s request.
“The Alabama Constitution only gives the governor the power to grant reprieves and commutations for death sentences,” King said. “In the final trials of the Scottsboro Boys, only one was sentenced to death. That man was pardoned in 1976 while he was still alive. From a legal standpoint, the governor has no authority to grant pardons to the other men.”
Bentley’s office is “exploring some methods that would allow a process for posthumous pardons” and will support efforts to make it happen, King said.
In 2006, the state passed legislation that provided a way for people arrested during the Jim Crow era to get pardons for violating segregation laws. The Rosa Parks Act allowed those arrested in civil rights protests to clear their records. Families were allowed to petition for pardons of loved ones who had died.
If a similar proposal were drafted for the Scottsboro Boys case, Bentley would be supportive, King said.
State Rep. Alvin Holmes said he believes Bentley has the authority and should issue the pardons. “It’s important to history. It’s important to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those defendants,” Holmes said. “It was an injustice what the state of Alabama did to them.”