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Archive for Friday, May 18, 2007

South begins offering pardons for segregation-era offenses

May 18, 2007

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— Lillie Mae Bradford is downright proud of her criminal record, but she wouldn't mind an official pardon.

The 77-year-old woman from Montgomery, Ala., got arrested for disorderly conduct in 1951 just for walking to the front of a bus and asking for a transfer. Black passengers were not allowed up front back then.

"I thought to myself, 'If you don't stand up for your rights now, you never will,'" she recalls.

Long after the South's segregation laws were declared unconstitutional, charges against Bradford and other blacks have remained on their records. But that could change as some Southern states move to offer pardons to those convicted of acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights movement.

Last year, Alabama became the first state to pass the Rosa Parks Act, which gives people the option of having their records expunged, and Tennessee's version won final approval Thursday in the Legislature and awaits the governor's signature. A similar measure failed in Florida.

"Unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, refusal to move - all of these were catchall charges under Jim Crow," said Rep. Thad McClammy, a black Montgomery Democrat who sponsored the Alabama law. "A lot of these followed individuals throughout their lifetime, and they shouldn't be criminalized."

Bradford, a retired school custodian, knows that having her record cleared now won't have any effect, but she wants to apply for a pardon certificate anyway.

The Alabama law grants a pardon, but then sends the criminal record to the state archives to be used in museums or for other educational purposes. Tennessee's proposal would allow a person to have his or her record destroyed, unless that person specifically requests it be preserved for public display.

Both states also would allow posthumous pardons, and that could apply to Parks herself, whose arrest in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus led to the Montgomery bus boycott that established the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national figure. Parks died in 2005. McClammy said he plans to contact Parks' estate about a pardon for her.

Tennessee's Rosa Parks Act passed the House 88-6 and was approved unanimously Thursday in the Senate. It now goes to Gov. Phil Bredesen, whose spokeswoman said he had not yet looked at the legislation.

The Florida version died in committee. The bill's sponsors plan to try again next year.

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