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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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People & Events: Clarence Norris, 1912 - 1989

    Clarence Norris on the stand"My name is Clarence Norris, one of the Scottsboro Boys. I was arrested in Alabama in 1931 and sentenced to the electric chair three times. The governor commuted my sentence to life in prison. I was released on parole twice, once in 1944, and I broke my parole and went back to prison until I got out in 1946. I broke my parole again and I have been free ever since. I want to know if Alabama still wants me." -- explaining the reason for his call to Alabama Governor George Wallace, 1973

Clarence Norris was the son of a former slave. At the age of seven, he was put to work in the fields the family sharecropped, and went to school only minimally. After his father died, he began working for wages. When he was 19, he took a trip on the Southern Railroad to look for work; instead he was arrested with eight other African American teenagers he didn't know.

In jail, much of his time was spent on death row, and he was haunted by the executions he could hear from his cell, and began dreaming of his own death.

His first trial overturned, Norris was retried -- and again sentenced to death -- in 1933. His appeal went to the United States Supreme Court, and inNorris v. Alabama, the court decided that the absence of black jurors on the jury rolls of Alabama constituted a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

While awaiting a new trial, Norris wrote: "I am alone, out to myself. No one to say a Kind word to Me just listen to the other people away from me." In 1937, Norris was tried and convicted a third time. As a few of the others were released he suspected that "the State frame me out of the best of my life just to get those four boys free." The next year, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Alabama Governor Bibb Graves. While working in a prison mill, Norris lost a finger. Prison life was difficult, he was losing hope and, he despaired, "without hope, a man in prison is nothing."

Clarence Norris police photographIn 1944 Norris was released on parole. After fleeing north, he was convinced to return to Alabama, in large measure to improve the lot of the two remaining Scottsboro defendants. Although promised leniency, Norris was returned to prison. Two years later, in 1946, Norris was paroled again.

After his release, Norris fled again, and assumed his brother's identity. He found work on his own, or with the help of friends like his defense lawyer,Samuel Leibowitz, and the NAACP. Two marriages quickly began and ended. He was arrested a few times, for gun possession, for gambling, and for stabbing a girlfriend. By the 1960s, he was living with a third wife and their children in Brooklyn, New York. Still in violation of his parole, he feared the effect of the revelation of his past on his children. The NAACP began proceedings to help determine if he was still a wanted man. Finally, in 1973, he called Alabama Governor George Wallace, and told one of the governor's subordinates the reason for his call. Did they still want him in Alabama? They did.

Enlisting the aid of NAACP lawyers, Norris requested a pardon. Alabama Parole and Pardon Board Chairman Norman Ussery required that Norris first turn himself in and reinstate parole before a pardon could be considered. The NAACP stepped up a public relations campaign and national newspapers, television networks and elected officials showed their support for Norris' position. The two other members of the Parole Board acted independently to void Norris' parole delinquency. This allowed Governor Wallace to approve a pardon.

On October 25, 1976, Clarence Norris, the last of the nine Scottsboro defendants, was no longer wanted by Alabama authorities. Moreover, he was officially declared "not guilty."

His comment on the pardon: "The lesson to black people, to my children, to everybody, is that you should always fight for your rights, even if it cost you your life. Stand up for your rights, even if it kills you. That's all that life consists of."

A speaking tour for the NAACP followed, and then a meeting with Wallace. Norris' autobiography was published in 1979. In the 1980s Norris was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and he died on January 23, 1989.

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