It was forty years ago today – on Monday, October 25, 1976 – when Clarence Norris was pardoned by Alabama’s governor, George C. Wallace. Originally from Warm Springs, Georgia, Norris was the last living one of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of nine black teenagers and young men who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. He had skipped parole decades earlier, in the 1940s, and had been living as fugitive in New York. A newspaper story from the day after his pardon quoted Norris as saying, “a man should never give up hope. Even if it kills you, stand up for your rights.”
Though Norris’s history is difficult – a falsely accused, wrongfully convicted man who broke parole and hid in plain sight – Norris’s pardoner had his own difficult history, too. George Wallace had spent more than a decade, from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, as a symbol of vehement Southern opposition to racial equality. His 1963 Stand in the Schoolhouse Door and his opposition to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March – both failed efforts – serve as excellent examples of Alabama’s recalcitrant mid-century attitudes toward racial justice. Though he did grant the pardon, Wallace still seems an unlikely agent for helping a 64-year-old black man who had forty-five years earlier been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
The Scottsboro Boys earned their dubious moniker in a series of events in northern Alabama in March 1931. Acting on charges made by two white women claiming they had been raped, the nine black men and teens were taken off their train in rural Jackson County, Alabama and tried in the county seat of Scottsboro. In three separate trials in early April, eight of the nine were convicted and sentenced to death. The remaining one of the accused was only 13 years old; he was convicted, though a single juror voted against the death penalty for him. Lawyers from the International Labor Defense and the NAACP got involved, and during that process, evidence surfaced that one of the women, Ruby Bates, admitted that she had not been raped. A year and a half later, in November 1932, the US Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. Alabama that the convictions would be overturned on the grounds that the young men did not have adequate legal counsel. Over the next five years, from 1933 until 1938, their cases bounced around the courts, and the men received a wide variety of unjust verdicts and sentences— especially unjust, considering that Ruby Bates came forth to testify in court that neither woman had been raped by the men who had been convicted of that crime.
The ugly injustice of what was done to the Scottsboro Boys further inflated Alabama’s reputation as a place where an obvious wrong would always stand if it meant showing even the smallest degree of racial toleration. The white accuser had recanted her charge, but the white-dominated “justice system” would never admit to treating any black man unfairly. This Depression-era precursor to the Civil Rights movement evidenced the harshness and brutality of the Jim Crow system in the South. By the mid-1940s, fifteen years after the incident that initially put him in jail, Clarence Norris took it on himself to be free of those circumstances.
Thirty years after Norris had left Alabama, NBC ran a made-for-TV movie called Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, about the 1933 re-trial of another of the Scottsboro Boys, Haywood Patterson. It aired in April 1976.
At the time that the program aired, Nashville’s Tennesseean newspaper ran a substantial piece, mostly about Horton, by Athens, Alabama native Wayne Whitt. In the article, Whitt explains how the US Supreme Court had ordered a new trial, how the dignified Horton had been assigned the trial in 1933, and how he had stood up against the jury’s unjust guilty verdict. Judge Horton, he wrote, saw through the prevailing fear of ruling in favor of the black defendant, and that ruling cost him his judicial career.
Later that fall, Clarence Norris’s latter-day plea for a pardon meant that he could face the possibility of even more injustice. Although Alabama’s attorney general Bill Baxley was on Norris’s side, other Alabama leaders were not. An October 20 news story explained: “The Alabama pardon board has insisted he must return and be jailed without bond before a pardon will be considered.” Norris, who by then had been living in New York for twenty-three years, flatly refused. He had “spent five years on death row, then served 15 years of a commuted life term” already.
Writing in November 2013 for al.com, attorney Donald Watkins told his story of procuring the pardon for Clarence Norris. His editorial was prompted by the then-recent pardons of three others of the Scottsboro boys. Watkins explained:
Norris decided to pursue his pardon in 1972. He was living as a fugitive under an alias in New York. In 1974, the NAACP asked me to represented Norris in his quest for a pardon. This was one of my first cases as a lawyer. I had studied the Scottsboro Boys’ landmark cases in law school, but I never thought one of the Scottsboro Boys was still alive.
My early attempts to get a pardon for Norris were met with massive resistance from the Pardons and Paroles Board chairman, and the case quickly reached an impasse. I then reached out to my friend Milton Davis, who was a young lawyer in Attorney General Bill Baxley’s office, and asked for his help. Davis arranged a meeting with Baxley and me, and he also convinced Baxley to assign him to the case for the AG’s office.
He goes on to describe the work it took to bring around the man who would ultimately have to sign off: Pardon and Parole Board Chairman Norman Ussery, a Wallace appointee who took a good deal of convincing.
The wire story about the pardon ran nationwide on Tuesday, October 26, 1976. In sharp contrast to the grainy photos of a solemn Clarence Norris that ran alongside the tense stories about the tenuous days leading up to it, that day’s coverage shows a bright and smiling man. He had felt this coming, he told reporters, and had taken the day off. His NAACP lawyers had to come find him at a bar to tell him. And about Gov. Wallace, attorney Nathaniel Jones is quoted as saying that, despite the struggles to get there, “this act of compassion [ . . . ] is nevertheless praiseworthy.”
The next year, Clarence Norris made news in Alabama again. During its spring 1977 session, state legislator Alvin Holmes sponsored a measure that would have “provided $10,000 reparation to Norris,” but the measure failed to pass. That fact prompted attorney Donald Watkins to take action again, preparing a lawsuit on his behalf.
Clarence Norris passed away in January 1989, though ten years earlier, he wrote and published an autobiography, titled Last of the Scottsboro Boys, which is still available in used edition through a variety of booksellers.
Wayne Whitt, “Drama Tells Courage of Alabama Judge,” Tennessean, April 22, 1976.
“Will never return, says Scottsboro ‘boy’,” AP wire. October 20, 1976.
“‘Scottsboro boy’ wants a pardon,” AP wire, October 10, 1976.
“Pardoned man’s reaction: ‘Never give up hope’,” AP wire, October 26, 1976.
“‘Scottsboro boy’ may now receive state compensation,” AP Wire, March 31, 1977.
“Damage suit drawn up for ‘Scottsboro boy’,” AP wire, September 2, 1977.