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Alabama Legislature Votes 103-0 to Pardon Scottsboro Boys

Montgomery, Ala. — In a final chapter to one of the most important civil rights episodes in American history, Alabama lawmakers voted yesterday to give posthumous pardons to the “Scottsboro Boys”: nine black teens who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women more than 80 years ago.

The bill setting up a procedure to pardon the group must be signed by Gov. Robert Bentley to become law. He plans to study the legislation but has said he favors the pardons.

All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries. All were eventually freed without executions. The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of excluding black people from juries.

The last of the men died in 1989.

The House approved the legislation yesterday morning in a 103-0 vote. The measure earlier passed the Senate 29-0.

“This is a great for Alabama. It was long overdue,” said Democratic Rep. Laura Hall of Huntsville, who sponsored the bill in the House.

Democratic Rep. John Robinson of Scottsboro said the pardons “should have happened a long time ago.”

The nine teens from Georgia and Tennessee were accused of raping two white women on a freight train in north Alabama in 1931. At this time during the Great Depression, many people would sneak aboard for free rides between cities. There had been a fight between whites and blacks on the train, and the two women made the false rape accusations in hopes of avoiding arrest.

The defendants were convicted in trials where, as typical in such cases at that time, guilty verdicts were never in doubt. The Communist Party seized on the case as an opportunity to make inroads among black people and liberals, and its legal arm was named as their attorneys. There were years of appeals — some successful, as one of the women recanted and said their claim was a lie. All the men were eventually freed.

The case set important legal precedents, including Supreme Court rulings that guaranteed the right to effective counsel and barred the practice of keeping blacks off juror rolls.

It’s also retained cultural resonance decades later. A Broadway musical entitled The Scottsboro Boys was staged in 2010, the same year a museum dedicated to the case opened in Scottsboro.

After yesterday’s vote, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a Republican, said, “You can’t change history, but you can take steps to right the wrongs of the past. The fact that this passed unanimously shows that today’s 21st century Alabama is far removed from the one that caused such pain for so many so long ago.”

The Senate sponsor, Republican Sen. Arthur Orr, of Decatur, said unfortunately the pardons come too late to help any of the Scottsboro Boys.