The University of Alabama

UA Students, Faculty Facilitate Historic Bill

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Gov. Robert Bentley at the signing of the Scottsboro Boys Act.

By Kristi Payne

Students and faculty from The University of Alabama played a crucial role in Gov. Robert Bentley’s recent signing of the historic Scottsboro Boys Act at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro.

New College faculty Dr. Ellen Griffith Spears and John Miller, J.D., along with department of history doctoral candidate Tom Reidy, provided historical research detailing the legal cases against nine African-American boys who were falsely accused of rape in 1931 when they traveled to Memphis in search of employment.

Reidy’s article in the summer 2012 edition of Alabama Heritage magazine called attention to the fact that eight of the defendants had never been pardoned by the state, despite their innocence.

Working with museum director Shelia Washington, Miller, Spears and Reidy provided model language for the posthumous pardon legislation and a joint legislative resolution formally exonerating all nine Scottsboro boys, whose cases cast an international spotlight on Jim Crow treatment of African Americans in the United States.

The bill, which creates a means of posthumously pardoning those wrongly convicted of certain felonies, unanimously passed the Alabama State House and Senate. The Resolution of Exoneration also passed both chambers unanimously.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Rep. Laura Hall, D-Hunstville, co-sponsored the Scottsboro Boys Act. Sponsoring the Resolution of Exoneration were Rep. John Robinson, D-Scottsboro; Rep. Wayne Johnson, R-Ryland; and Sen. Shadrack McGill, R-Scottsboro.

A ceremonial signing of the bill was held at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center on April 19. Nine young African-American men each lit candles to honor the memories of the nine Scottsboro Boys; Bentley then signed the legislation into law as the family of former Scottsboro defendant Clarence Norris looked on.

New College students assisted the museum in creating a website, researching and designing a map and brochure, and compiling historical research.

With support from a CCBP Award for Excellence in Community Engagement in 2012, UA also has continued to work with the museum by involving students in archival research at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Their work resulted in an exhibit, “Letters from the Scottsboro Boys Trials: A Digital Exhibit,” which is a collaboration among the museum, the Alabama Department of Archives and History and the Alabama Digital Humanities Center at UA’s Gorgas Library. The exhibit will be launched in 2013.

Support for the student involvement in historical research has come from museum director Shelia Washington, New College, the department of American studies, the department of history, the Center for Community-Based Partnerships, the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, the Summersell Center for the Study of the South, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Alabama Heritage magazine.

The Scottsboro Boys Museum University-Community Partnership received a 2010-2012 Partnerships-in-Scholarship grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Ford Foundation.

Other students involved in the research project include: Jennifer Barnett, Bonnie Applebeet, Stephanie Ballard, Mo Fiorella, Sarah Thornburg, Ann Hataway and Andy Ray.

Cooperating scholars include historian Dr. Dan Carter, professor emeritus of the University of South Carolina; Dr. James C. Hall, UA associate professor; Dr. William Bomar, Moundville Archeological Museum director; Dr. David Carter, Auburn University; Dr. Susan Pennybacker, UNC Chapel Hill; and Dr. James Miller, George Washington University.

For more information about the museum, visit www.scottsboro-boys.org.