Clarence Norris Jr.’s father was always a great mystery. His mother talked about him sometimes and Norris thought about his father a lot.
“Growing up as a kid, when things are bad, you feel ‘why did my father leave me’ why isn’t he here’?” Norris says. “Because it was always darkness to me mentally as far as knowing anything about him.”
Norris and I meet at a mall in Macon, Georgia, where he lives, and sit awkwardly in rocking chairs, sipping lemonade. Norris is kind, but guarded, he says he doesn’t trust people easily.
The past few years have brought Norris face to face with the difficult story of his father.
It started a few years back, when Norris was visiting family in his mom’s hometown. There, Norris met a cousin, who told him, “your father had a history, I am sure you don’t know about.”
He told Norris that his father was one of the nine Scottsboro Boys, wrongly convicted of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. A few months later, a relative sent Norris a PBS documentary about the Scottsboro Boys. It was the first time Norris saw a picture of his father or heard his voice.
“And that was moment, that was a moment,” says Norris, quietly. “Cause I had never seen him. So, the documentary discussed…all of what happened.”
What happened is one of the biggest trials of the century. The case sparked protests from New York to Havana and Berlin. It resulted in two Supreme Court rulings, dozens of books, a musical, and still echoes through the justice system.
It was 1931. The U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression, and black and white, young and old were traveling the country looking for work. On one such train traveling through North Alabama, a group of black and white men got into a fight.
“The train was stopped at Paint Rock and that’s when the case began,” explains Dan Carter, a retired professor of History from the University of South Carolina. Carter wrote a history of the trials called Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South that has become the book about the Scottsboro Boys.
“It turned out that there were two white women who were dressed as men, but were traveling on the train,” Carter continues. “But one in particular, the older one was terrified they were going to be arrested, for crossing the stateliness for illicit purposes.”
The older woman’s name was Victoria Price and she had worked off and on as a prostitute. Price and her friend, Ruby Bates, worried they would be arrested and charged with vagrancy for riding the train with men.
“So she knew she would be protected if she accused the young men of raping her,” explains Carter. So, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates accused the nine black teenagers of raping them.
All nine men were immediately arrested. Clarence Norris was the oldest at 19. The youngest, Roy Wright, was only 13. The men were taken to jail in Scottsboro, Alabama.
“A lynch mob surrounded the jail, but thanks to the local sheriff who called for the national guard, he managed to protect them,” Carter says.
The sheriff was a man named M.L. Wann. His grandsons, Billy Wann, says from the stories he has heard his grandfather was an righteous man. “He always wore overalls, and he kept his teeth in his pocket, and when he was going to go talk to someone he would put his teeth in and talk.”
Wann never knew his grandfather, but his father, who was a teenager at the time, told him the story of that day.
“This mob at formed and they had telephone poles that they were going to use as battering rams to break down the doors of the jailhouse,” Wann says. But his grandfather went outside and told the mob that he would kill the person who tried to enter the jail. “Then took off his gun belt and gave it to one of his deputies and he walked out through the crowd,” Wann recounts. “The crowd parted. No one ever touched him, and he went across the street to the courthouse and he called the National Guard. And had he not done that more than likely all of those 9 boys would have been lynched.”
In fact, that had happened only a few months prior in Indiana. Three young black men had been accused of robbery, murder and rape. A mob broke into the local jail and two of the men were lynched.
The first trial in Scottsboro lasted only three days, and the jury returned with a guilty verdict after less than two hours. Eight of the defendants were sentenced to death. Only the youngest, Roy Wright, was spared. Since he was 13, the court only sentenced him to life in prison.
After the first trial, the Scottsboro Boys case was taken over by lawyers from the International Labor Defense, the legal wing of the communist party. They appealed the sentences, and for years the trials bounced back and forth between Alabama and the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The U.S. Supreme Court called Powell v. Alabama reversed the trial verdict on the grounds that they had not had adequate counsel,” says Carter. “And that was something new.”
The trials kept going, and in 1935 the second Supreme Court decision – Norris v. Alabama — ruled that the defendants had not been judged by a jury of peers, because there were no black men on the jury.
The Scottsboro Boys’ cases was tried repeatedly, and the state of Alabama always found the defendants guilty.
The trials ended in 1937, when a bizarre political compromise was reached. Alabama released four of the Scottsboro Boys. Five were sent to jail, including Norris’ father, Clarence Norris Sr.
Norris Jr. says that he read a book his father wrote called The Man from Scottsboro, in which his father described his time in prison.
“He said his cell was right close to the death row chamber and he heard men being executed – he could hear them,” says Norris Jr. “And that’s powerful, I don’t know what that does to a person. To hear someone being put to death and knowing that that has been your sentence handed down to you, that eventually your turn is going to come to be in that chair, for something that you didn’t do.”
Norris spent 15 years in prison. Twice his head was shaved in preparation for his execution.
But the lawyers kept appealing the convictions, and Norris was finally granted parole in 1946. He immediately left Alabama for New York City, violating his parole. Eventually, the rest the Scottsboro Boys were paroled or escaped from jail and disappeared. Like Norris, some changed their names and went into hiding, in an attempt to escape the infamy of the case.
“Even though they were out of prison, their lives were and their future was still in jeopardy because of the fact that they had broken their parole,” explains Carter.
In New York, Norris got married and had two daughters. But sometime in the early 70s, he traveled back down to Georgia where he met Clarence Norris Jr.’s mother.
“The way she explained it to me, she was at her home at that time sitting on her porch, and this man walks down the street and she caught his eye. And he came over, and they started to talk. It went from there, and they got married. She just told me that one day, he told her he was going to take care of his mother, and he never returned,” says Norris Jr. “And she was pregnant with me.”
His mother sent her brothers to try and find him, but Norris had disappeared. Norris Jr. thinks maybe he went back to live with his family in New York, or maybe being near the Alabama state-line spooked him.
For 30 years, Norris had lived as a fugitive. Then finally, in 1976, Alabama Governor George Wallace granted Norris a pardon. There is a YouTube video of the ceremony that Norris Jr. has watched several times. In the news clip, the camera zooms in on Norris. The years have collected in bags under his eyes, and as he speaks, his eyes fill with tears
“I have no hate versus any creed or color. I like all people.,” Norris says. “And I’d like to think all people convicted of a crime which they didn’t commit should be free. I wish these other eight boys were around.”
Norris is the only Scottsboro Boy to receive a pardon from the state of Alabama in his lifetime.
While down South, Norris visited Dan Carter’s history class at Emory University in Atlanta. Carter remembers that one of the students asked Norris, “What was the worst thing about being in prison for so long, for a crime you didn’t commit?”
“And I thought he was going to talk about the nightmarish conditions, being in a cell, just down the hall from where all the executions took place, and he was under sentence of death twice,” remembers Cater. “But he said the worst thing about being in prison for that long is that you learn to trust no one, you trust no one, because anyone will betray you.”
Clarence Norris Sr. died in 1989. And today, everyone who was apart of the trial is gone, but still the story of the Scottsboro Boys bleeds into the lives of sons, daughters, grandson and neighbors.
“This is a picture of Scottsboro 1931 when the trail happened,” Shelia Washington has been collecting pictures and memorabilia about the case for years. Washington is the founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. She points to a black and white photo of a mob of people and pick ups packed in front of the Scottsboro courthouse and explains that in 1931, only about 1,500 people lived in Scottsboro, but on the day of the trial nearly 10,000 people from all over Alabama and neighboring states showed up at the courthouse to witness the trial.
As a young black woman growing up in Scottsboro, Washington likes to tell the story about when she was a teenager and found an autobiography of one of the Scottsboro Boys under her parents bed. Her father snatched the book away, saying “that story is too hurtful.”
Eventually, Washington read the autobiography, and the convictions of nine innocent teenagers haunted her. But, all nine were dead. Their families lost to history. So, Washington decided she would take up the fight to clear their names. Washington called lawyers and state senators. It took years. But finally, in November of 2013, the governor of Alabama exonerated all 9 men — erasing their conviction from history. And signed the “Scottsboro Boys Act.”
“If you can find out that someone in your family members or someone has died and they were innocent, they can be forgiven,” explains Washington, “and given a posthumous pardon.”
Washington is already working on the case of another man, she thinks can receive a posthumous pardon under the Scottsboro Boys Act.
According to Dan Carter, in the Jim Crow South of the 1920s and 30s, there are likely thousands of cases where black men and women were accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit.
“Essentially, if you were black and you were accused of a crime and rape was the fundamental one, and you were accused by a white person, you were convicted,” explains Carter. “I mean there just wasn’t any way around it.”
However, Carter and others admit that proving these cases will be hard. Alabama has the third highest incarceration rate in the nation, and there is a two-year backlog for pardons already. So, the new law makes getting a posthumous pardon difficult. The conviction has to be at least 80 years old. And requires massive evidence – affidavits and proof of innocence. Many cases are just too old and forgotten.
“A posthumous pardon causes people to think about the next case,” says John Miller, a lawyer and professor at the University of Alabama, who helped write the Scottsboro Boys Act.
Miller was not pleased by all the loopholes, but he says, the Act isn’t simply a symbolic, feel-good moment for Alabama.
“Are we going to better by the next group of people that are brought up on charges when the evidence looks a little thin and when they come from a background that is not like that of the people sitting in the jury box or the prosecution sitting across the courtroom,” questions Miller.
Clarence Norris Jr. was the only family member of the Scottsboro Boys to attend the pardoning. Norris feels responsible for his father’s memory and a lack of resolution. While learning about the case, Norris discovered that in the 1982, his father had petitioned the state of Alabama for reparations — 10,000 dollars in compensation for wrongful incarceration.
“When I found that [my father] had tried and failed, I felt like this is something that I need to finish for him,” Norris explains. “Even though he is not here to benefit from it. I feel like [the state of Alabama] still owes him.”
In Alabama, a wrongful conviction can be awarded $50,000 for every year of prison. So Norris and his sisters hired a lawyer and filed a case against the state of Alabama for $750,000 in reparations. They are the only family of all nine Scottsboro Boys who can be found.
States across the U.S. address reparations differently. Alabama is one of only 17 states that have mandated a fixed amount per year of wrongful incarceration. But, in Alabama, the process of petitioning for reparations is strict. Only two people have ever received compensation. According to the Alabama Attorney General’s Office the statute of limitations for reparations for Clarence Norris, has passed. Even the language of the very Scottsboro Boys Act says that a posthumous pardon cannot be used as evidence that the state owes anyone reparations.
“Are these families owed in a moral sense, some kind of compensation? I would say absolutely.” Miller continues, “Is it going to be hard for them to achieve that with the legal system before them as it is right now? Yes, it will be very, very difficult.”
Alabama is comfortable with addressing its past. There are museums and monuments to the horrors of Jim Crow and struggle of the Civil Rights movement. But when it comes to reparations, Alabama is wary. And according to Osagie Obasogie, a professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings, reparations are a crucial step in addressing a dark past.
“It’s easy to say I am sorry. It’s a little more difficult when you say, let me dig into my pockets, and provide financial compensation for my wrongdoing,” says Obasogie. “Money talks, and money forces a series of conversations that quite frankly the public needs to have about who was harmed, who perpetrated that harm, and the importance of not going back down that path.”
For states there are practical arguments against reparations, chiefly, money. Alabama, state lawmakers say, is a poor state and simply does not have the money to pay families or victims of injustice.
State senator Arthur Orr, championed the Scottsboro Boys Act through the state Legislature. Orr says that if the Scottsboro Boys were alive, they should receive reparations. But he questions whether the families of victims deserve compensation.
“What you do for one, you have to consider doing for others, and then you consider the others out there,” says Orr. “You could get into wives, and of course children and others that all bring claims and where does it end? And how can you get past that individual that was wrongfully incarcerated?”
It’s a difficult question. A posthumous pardon does nothing for a dead man. It’s for the living — the state and the family. In fact, professor Obasogie says, it’s the same with reparations.
“Reparations is not simply about the victim receiving money, but having the state being held accountable by providing money to the individual or their families as a symbolic sign that a wrong has been done,” argues Obasogie. “And the symbolic importance of that cannot be overstated, because it does create a precedent to ensure that similar mistakes are not made again.”
It’s been 83 years since the Scottsboro Boys were first convicted of rape and sentenced to death, and the effects of their cases have fanned out like waves, injustices piggy back on injustices up to the present day and cases like the Central Park Five and Trayvon Martin.
“There is still at least a similar treatment of young, black men, in that they are automatically suspect that the very presence of their bodies somehow brings about a kind of suspicion, and I think the echoes of that are still apparent in present day as well,” Miller explains. “There is an extent to which dealing with these issues historically, is an attempt to continue a conversation about them in the present day.”
This is a conversation that Clarence Norris Jr. very much wants to have. For his whole life, Norris has carried his father’s name, not knowing what it meant, or who his father was. Now, as he learns more, the past creeps into the present, and some of the weight his father carried, becomes his own.
Life of the Law‘s Scholarly Advisor on this story was Osagie Obasagie, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings.
Ashley Cleek is a radio reporter and producer living in Birmingham, Alabama. Ashley has reported stories in Turkey, Ukraine, India, and Russia for American, German and British radio. Her stories have appeared on The World and Marketplace and on websites such as PBS’s The Tehran Bureau, Global Post, and the Atlantic.
Thanks to Lazarus Data Recovery in San Francisco for their audio assistance.