According to the New York Times, three of the famous “Scottsboro Boys” recently received official pardons from the state of Alabama, over 80 years after they were wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Their trial was an infamous miscarriage of justice and was emblematic of institutionalized racism in the Jim Crow South. Since the defendants have all passed away, pardoning them required writing a new law that allowed for posthumous pardons in cases of “social injustice associated with racial discrimination.” Although it is merely a symbolic gesture, this is an important repudiation of Alabama’s racist history.
The great poet Langston Hughes took an interest in the case in 1931, when he visited the “Scottsboro Boys” on death row in Alabama. At the time, Hughes was on a trip across the South funded by his 1931 Rosenwald grant and inspired by Mary McLeod Bethune, who had encouraged him to spread his poetry to a Southern audience that was largely unfamiliar with his work. On the trip, Hughes visited all the Southern states, reciting and distributing his poetry at various venues, including many historically black colleges. A year later, Hughes would publish Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse, a virulent denunciation of the unjust treatment of the defendants by the Alabama legal system.
This posthumous pardon calls to mind President Clinton’s official apology for the notorious “Tuskegee Syphilis Study”. In his May 1997 apology speech, Clinton said that an official apology was “the first step [in] a commitment to rebuild that broken trust” engendered by the inhumane study. Unlike the recent Scottsboro pardon, four survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, each over 90 years old, attended that apology at the White House.
In other Alabama history-related news…
Those of you who tuned into Jeopardy! last night saw all three contestants unable to come up with the name of the author of Up from Slavery and Tuskegee & Its People. Whatever your opinion of Booker T. Washington’s work (which remains controversial to this day) it’s astounding that three schoolteachers competing in the Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament would be unaware of the most famous book written by the “Wizard of Tuskegee.” Washington is undeniably one of the major figures in African American history and he will play a prominent role in The Rosenwald Schools – one of his most interesting and lesser known projects is the school-building program he devised near the end of his life with Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund.