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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

A Father's Pride: Watching His Son Secure Justice for the Last Surviving "Scottsboro Boy" 45 Years After He was Falsely Accused of Raping Two White Women in Alabama

Updated: Mar 13

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published (via Facebook) on November 9, 2014; Republished on March 12, 2024

IMAGE: Scottsboro Boy Clarence Norris (left) celebrated his pardon with Dr. Levi Watkins (right) in the President's office at Alabama State University on November 29, 1976. My father told me the story of the Scottsboro Boys when I was a young boy. I never forgot it. This was the case that motivated me to become a lawyer. My father was extremely proud that I was the attorney who cleared the names of Mr. Norris' and the other eight Scottsboro Boys 45 years after their arrest.

My father was ecstatic when I called and informed him that I had finally secured a full and unconditional pardon from the state of Alabama for Mr. Clarence Norris, the last known surviving "Scottsboro Boy." I told my dad I would bring Norris by his office immediately after we picked up the pardon.


The Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine Black teenage boys who were arrested on March 25, 1931, and falsely charged with the rape of two white women aboard a freight train passing through Paint Rock, Alabama. All of them were innocent of the rape charges, but it did not matter to law enforcement authorities in Alabama.

IMAGE: Clarence Norris (far left) and the other eight "Scottsboro Boys" were arrested in 1931 in Paint Rock, Alabama and falsely accused of raping two white women.

As a young Black kid growing up in racially segregated Alabama during the 1950s, my dad made sure that my two brothers and I knew the story of the Scottsboro Boys, and knew it well. No Black parent in the South in the 1950s wanted to endure the traumatic and painful experience of having his/her son falsely accused of raping a White woman. The outcome of such a sexual assault accusation, whether true or not, was always ugly, violent, and fatal for the accused Black man, teenager, or child.


Despite their innocence, the Scottsboro Boys were tried and convicted of rape. Eight of them were originally sentenced to death. The ninth Boy was a juvenile and was spared the death penalty. All of the Boys served significant time in prison.


Clarence Norris’ request for a pardon followed a long, difficult, and turbulent legal battle that involved two U.S. Supreme Court-ordered retrials and a total of three death sentences handed down to him between 1933 and July 1937. Norris came within hours of being executed on two occasions, only to be spare death by the U.S. Supreme Court upon the issuance of last-minute stays of execution..


Alabama Gov. Bibb Graves eventually commuted Norris’ death sentence to life in prison, and in 1944 Norris was paroled.


Norris violated the terms of his parole by fleeing Alabama after his release. After being told that he was a fugitive from justice and he would be treated leniently if he returned, Norris returned to Alabama. He was immediately imprisoned.


Norris was paroled again in 1946, and he fled the state once again. Norris settled in New York, where he lived and worked in the city as a model citizen for the next four decades.


Clarence Norris' Quest for a Full Pardon Based Upon a Showing of "Innocence"


In the early 1970s, Clarence Norris, who was still classified by the state of Alabama as a fugitive, decided to pursue his pardon. In 1974, the NAACP in New York asked me to represented Norris in his quest for a pardon. This was one of my first cases as a lawyer.


In addition to what my parents taught me about the case, I had studied the Scottsboro Boys' landmark cases in law school. I never thought one of the Boys was still alive. I was thrilled to be Clarence Norris' lawyer and honored to take his case.


My 1974-75 attempts to secure a pardon for Norris were met with massive resistance from the Alabama Pardons and Paroles Board, and the case reached an impasse on several occasions. This resistance is documented in the case file linked here.


In 1976, I reached out to my friend Milton C. Davis, who was a young lawyer in Attorney General Bill Baxley’s office at the time, and asked for his help. Davis and Baxley joined forces and worked diligently to help me secure Norris’ pardon.

IMAGE: Attorney Milton C. Davis, a former Deputy Attorney General under Bill Bailey, worked tirelessly to secure a full and unconditional pardon for Mr. Clarence Norris. His work paid off on November 29, 1976.

Clarence Norris' Triumphant Return to Montgomery


On November 29, 1976, Clarence Norris returned to Montgomery to receive his pardon and a hero's welcome. I met him on the tarmac of the airport.

IMAGE: Clarence Norris lands in Montgomery, Alabama on November 29, 1976, to receive his full and unconditional pardon from the state of Alabama.

When Norris exited the airplane, we just stared at each other until he reached me in the sea of reporters and well-wishers. Then, we hugged and cried. Both of us realized the magnitude of the moment -- on this historic day, Norris had secured the first-ever full and unconditional pardon issued to a death-row inmate by the state of Alabama based upon a finding of “innocence”.


We proceeded from the airport to the Pardons and Parole Board's hearing room. With tears streaming down his face, Norris proudly accepted his pardon on behalf of himself and the other eight Scottsboro Boys. His 45-year legal battle with the state of Alabama was finally over, and his name had been cleared (along with those of the other eight Boys). The state has finally admitted in writing that the Scottsboro Boys had been falsely accused of rape.


IMAGE: "Scottsboro Boy" Clarence Norris (right) receiving his full and unconditional pardon based upon his "innocence" from Attorney Donald V. Watkins (left) on November 29, 1976, in Montgomery, Alabama.

I took Clarence Norris to visit my father after we had his pardon in hand. My father, who was president of Alabama State University at the time, was beaming with pride when Norris and I entered his office for a private meeting.


My father had told me about the Boys' story when I was just a ten-year old kid. He followed their criminal trials in real-time.


My father steadfastly supported my efforts to win a pardon for Clarence Norris. He also gave me great ideas on how to secure the pardon, including advice on how to win the approval of Governor George Wallace for the pardon.


For an hour and a half, I watched Clarence Norris and my father share their stories and celebrate Norris’ full and complete freedom from the criminal charges that had haunted him for 45-years.


My father thanked Clarence Norris for his courage and his years of perseverance in pursuing the pardon. Norris thanked my father for supporting me throughout the difficult legal battles to clear the Scottsboro Boys’ names.


I took photographs of the historic meeting between these two giants among men -- Clarence Norris and Levi Watkins. Words cannot describe the respect these two men had for each other and for my work in securing Norris’ pardon.


It was my father's pride in his son's achievement that I remember the most about that day. His pride was captured in my photographs of this event for posterity.


The NAACP in New York, which had fought for justice for the Scottsboro Boys since 1931, was extremely pleased with the pardon for Clarence Norris. The organization sent its top executives to Montgomery to celebrate this monumental event in criminal justice.

IMAGE: NAACP national officers, along with Donald V. Watkins (far left), Clarence Norris (center, seated), and Milton C. Davis (center, standing).

I bided Clarence Norris farewell the next day. We stayed in touched with each other until he died on January 23, 1989.

IMAGE: Donald V. Watkins (left) bids farewell to Clarence Norris on November 30, 1976.

Epilogue


The Scottsboro Boys' ordeal began 93 years ago this month. This single case brought the greatest number of death threats on my life during my entire 46-year career as a lawyer.


To this day, the Clarence Norris pardon has been the greatest and most rewarding fight in my legal career. I am proud that God chose me to win this fight for Clarence Norris (and the other Scottsboro Boys) while he was alive to smell the roses.

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Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
Mar 13

Throughout my legal career, I used the law as a tool to prevent or correct manifest injustices. Practicing law was never about the type of car I drove or the size of my house. To me, those are shallow things that quench a superficial thirst for personal vanity. I enjoyed my cases because they stopped the infliction of suffering on Blacks and women.

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