More than 80 years after their wrongful convictions, the legendary Scottsboro Boys finally received a posthumous pardon from the Alabama legislature. In 1931, the nine black teens were falsely accused of rape by two white women and convicted by all-white juries. All but one spent time on death row and all were eventually freed, but only after doing hard time. The damage was done.
America’s civil rights history evokes a sense of pride and accomplishment, given the hard-fought battles waged in the courtroom and in the streets, and those who were maimed and martyred in the process. And yet there is unfinished business, including other wrongful convictions of African-Americans, unsolved murders of civil rights leaders, and other violations for which no perpetrators were ever held to account, and the victims never received so much as an apology. The Scottsboro Boys have been vindicated, but there are many more waiting in the wings—waiting for justice.
Like the Scottsboro Boys, Recy Taylor received justice from the Alabama Senate, however symbolic. In 1991, state legislators apologized to Ms. Taylor, then 91, who had been abducted and gang raped by seven white men in 1944. Her plight came to symbolize the sexual violence visited upon black women by white men in the Jim Crow South.
And justice also came for the Wilmington Ten in January, when Beverly Purdue, then-governor of North Carolina, pardoned the group for their wrongful conviction four decades ago. Widely regarded as political prisoners, the Wilmington Ten—which included nine black men and one white woman—were sentenced to a total of 300 years for the 1971 firebombing of a white-owned grocery store on the night a black teenager was killed by police. Further, they were convicted of conspiracy to assault emergency responders who came to the scene of the fire. One of the surviving members of the group is Benjamin Chavis, former president and CEO of the NAACP.
Jack Johnson, Marcus Garvey and more in need of exoneration
Meanwhile, relief has not come for the family of Jack Johnson, the nation’s first black heavyweight champion who was railroaded by an all-white jury in 1913. The boxer was convicted and sent to prison for a year under a law making it illegal to transport a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Johnson became a star athlete at a time of deep racial hostilities and Jim Crow lynchings, and his victory precipitated race riots across America.
Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was a Pan-Africanist and a black nationalist who was an important part of the “Back to Africa” movement, and had an influence on groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Rastafarians. In order to realize his goal of returning the people of the black diaspora back to their ancestral homeland, Garvey created the Black Star Line, a transportation company.
Once described by W.E.B. DuBois as “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America” for his separatism, Garvey was arrested in 1922 for mail fraud related to a stock sale in the business, a politically-motivated federal prosecution. He was sentenced to five years behind bars, and was later deported after his release from prison. A petition urges Congress to grant a pardon to the civil rights leader.
Over 40 years ago, Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King—known as the Angola 3—were convicted of murdering a prison guard at Angola Prison in Louisiana. Woodfox and Wallace—who have maintained their innocence and claim they were framed due to their membership in the Black Panther Party—have been in solitary confinement since 1972.
Civil rights activists caught fighting for freedom
King was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement, after entering into a lease bargain for an unrelated crime for which he was never charged. This past February, for the third time, a federal judge has overturned Woodfox’s sentence, ordering his release due to racial discrimination in jury selection at his trial.
In 1978 in West Philadelphia, hundreds of police officers raided the homes of the black liberation group known as the MOVE organization. One officer, James Ramp, was killed with a single bullet, and 12 MOVE members were arrested. Nine were convicted of third degree murder and conspiracy, always maintaining the officer was killed by friendly fire. Eight of the MOVE 9 members are still alive and remain in prison, denied parole because they would not take responsibility for the crime. Police had demolished the crime scene, and all of the evidence with it, within hours of the incident.