By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on August 12, 2018
Clarence Norris was one of nine "Scottsboro Boys" who were arrested in 1931 in Paint Rock, Alabama and falsely accused of raping two white women. Norris was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Alabama's electric chair three times. The U.S. Supreme Court saved his life each time.
Their ordeal in Alabama's prison system was filled with unspeakable acts of horror and pain. These acts epitomize man's inhumanity to man.
Norris' Quest for a Pardon
Norris decided to pursue his quest for a pardon in 1972. He was living as a fugitive under an alias in New York. I was still in law school at the time.
In 1974, the NAACP asked me to represent Norris in his quest for a pardon. I had studied the Scottsboro Boys' landmark cases in law school, but I never thought one of the Scottsboro Boys was still alive.
My early attempts to get a pardon for Norris were met with massive resistance from the Alabama Pardons and Paroles Board, and the case quickly reached an impasse. I then approached Attorney Milton C. Davis, a friend of mine from Tuskegee who worked as an Assistant Attorney General in Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley's office. I asked Milton for his help. He quickly arranged a meeting between Baxley and me. Milton also convinced Baxley to assign him to research the evidence and court records in the case for the Attorney General's office.
To qualify for his pardon, Clarence Norris had to prove his innocence by clear and convincing evidence. He also had to get the Pardons and Parole Board and Governor George Wallace to unanimously agree to his pardon.
After reviewing the evidence in the case that had been developed by Davis and me, Bill Baxley wrote a detailed letter to the three-member Pardons and Parole Board affirming Norris' innocence of the rape charges and urging the Board to pardon him. Baxley eventually convinced board members William R. Robinson and Sara Cousins Sellers of Norris' innocence. However, Baxley was unable to convince Chairman Norman F. Ussery, who pointed out that Norris was a fugitive and indicated the board would not consider a pardon until Norris was returned to the Alabama prison system.
The pardon effort came to a complete standstill because Norris, whose experience in Alabama was a living hell, was not inclined to return to Alabama for the purpose of re-entering the state's penal system. He would, however, return to secure his pardon.
On October 22, 1976, Board members Robinson and Sellers agreed to declare that Norris was no longer a fugitive from justice. They quietly reinstated his parole, without supervision. They also voted to withdraw the September 30, 1946 warrant for Norris’ arrest.
On October 25, 1976, Sara Sellers issued her own "Statement of Evidence, Reasons and Opinion" in which she found that “Clarence Norris is not guilty of this [rape] offense.” Robinson agreed with Sellers' findings and opinion.
Chairman Norman Ussery, however, still would not bend. Bill Baxley then talked to Gov. Wallace, who became really interested in the pardon effort and eventually became convinced of Norris' innocence, as well. Wallace, who had appointed and reappointed Ussery to the board, privately discussed the pardon with Ussery and convinced him to change his mind.
On November 26, 1976, all three Pardons and Parole Board members signed a certification for the issuance of a full and unconditional pardon for Clarence Norris based upon his innocence of the 1931 rape charges. Wallace signed the certification, as well.
It took two long and heart-breaking years to secure Clarence Norris' pardon. The State of Alabama's resistance to our pardon request was massive and ugly. This resistance is documented in the case file. In the end, we prevailed.
Norris' Triumphant Return to Alabama
On November 29, 1976, Norris returned to Montgomery to receive his pardon and a hero's welcome. I met him on the tarmac of the airport. When Norris exited the airplane, we just stared at each other until he reached me in the sea of reporters and supporters from around the world. Then, we hugged and cried. Both of us realized the magnitude of the moment -- the State of Alabama had finally and officially declared that the Scottsboro Boys were innocent of the 1931 rape charges.
We proceeded from the airport to the Pardons and Parole Board's meeting room. With tears streaming down his face, Clarence Norris proudly accepted his pardon on behalf of himself and the other eight Scottsboro Boys. Norris' 45-year legal battle with the State of Alabama was finally over, and his name had been cleared.
At least one of the Scottsboro Boys -- Clarence Norris -- was alive to see justice prevail 45 years after they were arrested, thanks to Bill Baxley's and Milton Davis' personal commitment to the fair administration of justice when they served in the Attorney General's Office. No Alabama public officials, living or dead, did more to end this tragic chapter in Alabama's history on the right note than Bill Baxley and Milton Davis.
To this day, the Clarence Norris pardon has been the proudest and most rewarding fight in my 45-year legal career. I am glad God chose me to end this fight for Clarence Norris while he was alive to smell the roses.
Clarence Norris died in the Bronx Community Hospital on January 23, 1989 at the age of seventy-six. The State of Alabama never compensated Norris for his wrongful incarceration and 45-year ordeal in its criminal justice system. Yet, Norris never stopped fighting for the fair administration of justice for others who were falsely accused of crimes.
PHOTO: 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.
PHOTO: "Scottsboro Boy" Clarence Norris (right) receiving his pardon from Attorney Donald V. Watkins (left) on November 29, 1976, in Montgomery, AL (USA).