Tuesday, August 06, 2013

MA Alum Thomas Reidy Helps Set Stage for Pardon of "Scottsboro Boys" AND Defends his PhD Dissertation!

The UAH History Department is extremely proud of our MA Alum, Thomas Reidy, for his academic achievements and contributions to the betterment of society this past year.

Tom played a pivotal role in the Alabama Legislature’s 2013 passage of the Scottsboro Boys Act, which allows the Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider posthumous pardons, as well as Resolution of Exoneration for all nine defendants in the Scottsboro case. On top of all of this, Tom defended his PhD dissertation at the University of Alabama in June!

"The story of the "Scottsboro Boys" is well-known. In 1931, nine African-Americans, ages twelve to nineteen, were taken off a train in Paint Rock and charged with raping two white, Huntsville women. The accused were driven to Scottsboro on the back of a flat-bed truck and given a hasty trial. Not surprisingly in the Jim Crow era, all "Scottsboro Boys" except twelve year-old Roy Wright were convicted, and sentenced to death. Young Roy was given life in prison.

Ultimately, after a long series of appeals and retrials, their case led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions, one affirming the right of defendants to competent counsel, and a second affirming the right of African-Americans to service on juries.

Nonetheless, none of the defendants was pardoned until the 1976 pardon of Clarence Norris, which Tom documented in a 2012 essay
in the Alabama Heritage magazine, “Awaiting Justice: The Improbable Pardon of ‘Scottsboro Boy’ Clarence Norris.” Norris was the only “Scottsboro boy” still alive at that time.

This article was an outgrowth of Tom’s work since 2011 alongside Sheila Washington, director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, to seek pardons for the Scottsboro Boys. The two met with the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, several legislators, and various attorneys for several months prior to the article’s publication. Tom also drafted a letter sent to Governor Robert Bentley asking for the pardons.

After the publication and widespread circulation of the much-praised Alabama Heritage article, Tom and Sheila Washington met with the five legislators who would sponsor the “Scottsboro Boys” bill--John Robinson, Shadrick McGill, Wayne Johnson, Laura Hall, and Arthur Orr. Once they were on board, Tom drafted early versions of both the resolution and the act. John Miller, an attorney who teaches law at UA's New College, polished the legalese and made it palatable to some skeptics. Tom was also instrumental in building relationships with very important Civil Rights leaders, whose voices certainly were heard in Montgomery and helped influence legislative passage, including Fred Gray (Rosa Park's attorney), Milton C. Davis, Bill Baxley, Donald Watkins, and John Lewis, all of whom supported the pardon efforts.

Governor Bentley has signed both bills into law, and Tom and fellow activists are now working with Morgan County and Jackson County to prepare the petition for the un-pardoned defendants.

Tom also recently defended his PhD dissertation, “Objects of Confidence and Choice: Professional Communities in Alabama, 1804 to 1861,” at the University of Alabama. This dissertation considers the contributions of professionals--lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and others with advanced degrees or licenses--in antebellum Alabama. It argues that professionals were institution-builders who provided the foundation for the growth of the state. They built court houses and jails, schools and libraries, post offices and newspapers, and sat on boards that supervised these institutions. They were town councilmen, mayors, representatives, and governors. By building and maintaining public and private institutions, professionals made the state of Alabama attractive to tens of thousands of new immigrants. Some professionals hoped to diversify Alabama's slave economy, yet they continually passed laws that strengthened the institution of slavery. The dissertation demonstrates that by the time of the Civil War, professionals helped make Alabama a wealthy and powerful state.

We are very proud of Tom’s achievements. He is an excellent example of how historical research and writing can affect society and politics in important ways, in this case correcting the historical record and advancing human justice. We look forward to posting the good news when the Scottsboro Boys achieve full pardon, and we wish Tom well in all of his future professional endeavors!

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