BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Alabama lawmakers on Thursday paved the way for the posthumous exoneration of nine black teenagers known as the Scottsboro Boys, whose fight against false charges that they raped two white women 82 years ago helped spur the modern civil rights movement.
The youths, from Tennessee and Georgia, were accused of gang-raping the two women aboard a freight train in Alabama on March 25, 1931. All but the youngest defendant were convicted by all-white juries in the town of Scottsboro and quickly sentenced to death.
Their subsequent legal journey to fight the convictions and win new trials sparked protests over racial injustice and two landmark rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. Their struggles also inspired a Broadway musical, books and television movies.
Though one of the women recanted her rape allegations, the convictions against five of the teens were ultimately upheld, and everyone in the group served at least several years in prison before being released.
A legislative resolution in Alabama to clear their names describes the Scottsboro Boys as “victims of gross injustice.”
The state House of Representatives on Thursday unanimously approved a companion bill that amends state law to allow the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles to posthumously grant the Scottsboro Boys pardons.
The bill had received full support from the Senate in February, and a spokesman for Republican Governor Robert Bentley said he supports the exoneration effort.
“It’s time to right this wrong,” the governor’s spokesman, Jeremy King, told Reuters last month.
The U.S. Supreme Court twice overturned convictions for some of the Scottsboro Boys, first in 1932 on the grounds that the teens were denied their right to competent legal counsel, and again in 1935 because no African-Americans had been allowed to serve as jurors in their trials.
One of the Scottsboro Boys, Clarence Norris, received a pardon from then-Governor George Wallace in 1976. Norris, the last surviving member of the group, died in 1989.
The push to have all the youths declared innocent decades after their arrests began with Shelia Washington, who founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro in 2010.
Washington, 53, said she learned about their saga as a young girl and has spent much of her life seeking justice for them.
“I am thankful to see the day the history books will be rewritten,” Washington said.
She has invited Bentley to sign the bill into law on the bench used by the judge who first convicted the teens.
“As long as there is injustice in the courtroom the Scottsboro Boys will live on, but the end of this disgrace needs to come back full circle to where it happened,” Washington said.
Reporting by Verna Gates; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Leslie Adler