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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Clarence Norris: The “Scottsboro Boy” Who Never Stopped Fighting

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on August 29, 2022

Clarence Norris was one of the nine "Scottsboro Boys" who were arrested in 1931 in Paint Rock, Alabama and falsely accused of raping two white women on a freight train passing through the state. After their arrest, the Boys, who ranged from 13 to 18-years-old, were taken to Scottsboro, Alabama to await their trials.

Mr. Norris was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Alabama's electric chair three times. The U.S. Supreme Court saved his life at the last hour each time.

The Boys were repeatedly beaten and abused by jailers after their arrest, before their trials, after their trials, and during their imprisonment. They always maintained their innocence.

After each round of guilty verdicts, the Scottsboro Boys who were convicted of rape by all-white Alabama juries were forced to build their own coffins and lie in them while guards urinated on them.

Mr. Norris would become the first and only former death row inmate who was awarded a full and unconditional pardon by the state of Alabama on the basis of his innocence. The passage of time revealed that all of the nine Scottsboro Boys were, in fact, innocent of the rape charges.

Their ordeal in Alabama's prison system was horrendous. It was the epitome of man's inhumanity to man.

Mr. Norris decided to pursue his quest for a pardon in 1972. He was living as a fugitive under an alias name in New York City. I was still in law school at the time.

In 1974, the NAACP in New Your City asked me to represented Norris in his quest for a pardon. My parents had already discussed the Scottsboro Boys case with my brothers and me in our home when I was a young boy. I had also studied the Scottsboro Boys' landmark constitutional rights cases in law school.

However, I never thought one of the Scottsboro Boys was still alive. I was elated to represent Mr. Norris. I poured my heart and should into this case.

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.

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's findings and opinion.

Chairman Norman Ussery, however, still would not bend. 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 me 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.

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 -- on this historic day, 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, 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.

Clarence Norris never stopped fighting to clear the Scottsboro Boys' name. He was alive to see justice prevail 45 years after the Boys were arrested, thanks to Bill Baxley's and Milton Davis' personal commitment to the fair administration of justice when they served in the Alabama 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 greatest and most rewarding legal fight in my 49-year career. I am proud that God chose me to end this fight for Clarence Norris while he was alive to smell the roses.

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 full and unconditional pardon based upon his "innocence" from Attorney Donald V. Watkins (left) on November 29, 1976, in Montgomery, AL (USA).

PHOTO: 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.

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