Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

spacer above content
Primary Sources: A Pardon

In the 1970s, Clarence Norris was the last Scottsboro defendant still alive. He lived with his wife and two daughters in Brooklyn, and worked for the City of New York. However, he had broken his parole in the 1940s and was never sure if he was still a wanted man. Norris was afraid to contact his mother or siblings, and he lived in fear that his daughters would discover that he had been convicted of rape.

The NAACP agreed to inquire into Norris' status as a fugitive. They found he was still wanted in Alabama. The NAACP assigned a Jewish lawyer from New York, James Meyerson, to assist Norris. A local Alabama law firm eventually tracked down the relevant law: anyone whose death sentence had been commuted could not receive a pardon unless the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles agreed that the convict was innocent and voted unanimously for the pardon, which the governor would then have to approve. A transfer of parole to New York was considered, but Norris refused to turn himself in to the Alabama authorities. Alabama Attorney General William J. Baxley supported Norris, but Parole and Pardon Board Chairman Norman Ussery insisted that, since Norris was still a fugitive, a pardon could not be even considered.

As the public grew more interested in the case, Norris's cause was endorsed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Montgomery Advertiser. Finally, the two other members of the Parole Board voted independently to withdraw the warrant for his arrest; Norris was no longer a fugitive. Baxley presented his findings of fact to the board and the board signed it as proof of Norris' innocence. Governor George Wallace, an erstwhile segregationist who was himself no stranger to racial controversy, then approved the pardon.

On October 25, 1976, Clarence Norris was found not guilty by the state of Alabama; he later described his experience.

I never thought I'd see the day that I would go back to Alabama for any reason whatsoever. And as far as I was concerned I could have skipped that, and they could have mailed the pardon to me. But plans were made for the pardons and paroles board to give me the pardon personally in the Capitol building in Montgomery.

On November 29, 1976, I returned to Alabama a free man, nearly forty-six years after being taken off that freight train. There were a few hundred people waiting at the airport, and to be frank I was scared to get off the plane. I thought there might be some crazy cracker in the crowd who would take a shot at me. But Meyerson convinced me they were all well-wishers out there. I didn't believe that but when he told me security had been arranged for, I got out of the airplane. The people were pushing and shoving, the reporters were there and the TV cameras, men were shaking my hand and women were kissing on me. I was rushed to a car. It was all a blur, although I know I was answering questions and everything. I was in a daze. I'd never seen the like and I couldn't believe it was happening in Alabama. We got to the Capitol building about eleven o'clock that morning, and there was a mob there too. Everybody was smiling and telling me how happy they were that I was free. The reporters kept asking me how it felt to be free.

We all packed into the pardons and paroles board's office, and Norman Ussery made a little speech of welcome. He shook my hand and gave me the pardon. The other board members congratulated me and wished me well. Lots of pictures were being taken.

We left there and went directly to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for a press conference. The same church where Martin Luther King Jr., started the civil rights movement. The church was full with wall-to-wall people, black and white. [NAACP Director] Roy Wilkins made a speech and several others who were involved in the case. I told the reporters I was glad to be free, that I had no hard feelings against Alabama and that the past was buried as far as my concern. I said I wanted my pardon because it was due me and because of my kids, my family. I expressed my feeling that the thing I wished for more than anything in the world was for Haywood, Ozie, Andy, Roy, Olen, Eugene, Willie and Charlie to be there with me, and that they deserved the same pardon as myself.

Excerpt from Norris, Clarence, and Sybil D. Washington, The Last of the Scottsboro Boys. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.

Site Navigation

The Film & More: Film Description | Transcript | Primary Sources | Further Reading

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Maps | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2000 PBS Online / WGBH

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: