Susan Glisson, executive director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, also was gladdened by the measure. “It is an opportunity for us to understand that period, especially the ways in which blacks were deemed inferior and therefore not worthy of equal treatment before the law,” she said.
But she found it ironic that it happened while Alabama is challenging its requirements under the Voting Rights Act, and said that the amount of time it took to pass may lead some to consider it an “empty gesture.”
“For those of us who care about where our country’s headed, I would hope we would take the opportunity to ask difficult questions about what reconciliation really means and also to understand the critical role that education and justice plays in its accomplishment,” Glisson said.
The episode began on a freight train traveling through Alabama during the Great Depression.
During that time, many people would sneak aboard for free rides between cities. There was a fight between whites and blacks on the train, and the two women made the false rape accusations in hopes of avoiding arrest.
Lynch mobs gathered outside the jail, but were warned off by the white sheriff and rebuffed by National Guardsmen called in by the governor.
After the defendants were convicted, the Communist Party seized on the case as an opportunity to make inroads among black people and liberals. It got one of its lawyers named as defense counsel, and also secured the services of famed defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz.
There were years of appeals — some successful, as one of the women recanted and said their claim was a lie.
Decades later, when the idea of pardons was raised, the governor and parole board said they didn’t have the legal authority to pardon the deceased. But Sheila Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, which opened in 2010, pursued the legislation.
Washington said Thursday that the pardons would finally shine a light on “this dark injustice.”
If the governor signs the bill as expected, a petition would need to be filed for each of the men, said Eddie Cook, executive director of the state parole board. The parole board would then decide whether to grant each pardon.
Previously, there had not been a procedure for pardoning someone who is dead.