May 13, 2013
More than 80 years ago, nine young black men, ages 13 to 19, were accused in Scottsboro, Alabama of raping two white women. This April, after 82 years, the state of Alabama has proposed to pardon these young men who were sent to prison or even condemned to death thanks to a completely racist judicial system.
The defendants became known as the Scottsboro Boys. (The fact that young men as old as 19 could be referred to as “boys,” even by their supporters, is the mark of a racist society that refused to acknowledge black men as men.) This case was tried and retried – with the verdict going to the Supreme Court to be overturned twice. The young men gained support and free legal assistance from a widespread campaign carried on outside Alabama. In the end, four would be freed after six harsh years in prison and a third trial. Two ended up escaping from prison and the other five were eventually paroled – having survived years in prison and the threat of the death penalty.
Their trials were infamous because no evidence linking them to any crime was ever presented; because they were originally denied legal counsel; and because they were not tried by a jury of their peers, since black people were rarely allowed on juries in Alabama in that period.
The two women making the accusation of rape later recanted their stories. But that was too late for these young men whose lives were ruined. As one said at the time the case was most in the news: “They told us if we didn’t confess they’d kill us – give us to the mob outside.”
Has Alabama changed its racist use of the judicial system since 1931? Right this minute, the state of Alabama is involved in a Supreme Court case over violations of the Voting Rights Act, attempting to stop some people from voting, particularly some who are black.
It has taken the state of Alabama eight decades to get around to “pardoning” these young men. It is not the Scottsboro men who need a pardon. A racist judicial system still inflicts unequal and unjust penalties on black men, especially those not rich enough to hire a good lawyer.
No, a pardon cannot wipe out what was done to Roy Wright, Andy Wright, Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Haywood Patterson and Clarence Norris!