Pardons can recognize that arrests of Civil Rights activists were unjustified and that the legal system is not infallible. For those wrongfully punished for their civil rights activity, pardons can correct the official record.
Pardons – United States
Below are numerous examples of state and federal pardons used to achieve restorative justice.
Civil Rights-Related Pardons
State constitutions vary as to the nature of executive pardon power. In some states the governor has unfettered authority, while in others he shares the power with legislative bodies or pardon boards. See Fowler, Kristin. “Limiting the Federal Pardon Power.” Indiana Law Journal, no. 83 (2008): 1651.
Alabama and Tennessee passed legislation for a streamlined pardons process for convictions related to participation in protest during the civil rights era.
In 2006 the Alabama legislature passed the Rosa Parks Act, Alabama Code 15-22-90-15-22-92. The Rosa Parks Act allows an applicant to seek a pardon for a conviction stemming from participation in protests, or challenges to state laws or municipal ordinances created to maintain racial segregation or discrimination. Relatives of the convicted person can apply for a pardon through this Act if the convicted person is now deceased. The process for receiving a pardon under this Act is streamlined and gives applicants the opportunity to have their records expunged. The criminal records related to pardons granted under this Act are used in museums for educational purposes. Many of those eligible under the blanket pardon strongly rejected the offer of a pardon. Protestors explained that they were proud of their past actions and did not want to erase that history with a pardon. See Mayor offers pardons to civil rights activists, MSN (Aug. 11, 2009).
- Washington Post, Brave Convictions: Two Southern States Belatedly Pardon Civil Rights Activists, June 22, 2007
- “The Rosa Parks Act,” Ala. Code 1975 §§15-22-90 to 92 (2010)
The Rosa Parks Act, Tennessee
Signed into law in 2007, the Rosa Parks Act in Tennessee expunges the records of persons charged with crimes for protesting segregation-era laws. In contrast to Alabama, where the segregation-era arrest records will be displayed in a museum, in Tennessee the records will be destroyed unless otherwise requested.
- “The Tennessee Rosa Parks Act,” T.C.A. § 40-32-101(2010)
The Avery Alexander Act of 2006, Louisiana
The Avery Alexander Act provides that pardons will be granted upon application to anyone convicted of violating a state law or municipal ordinance that enforced racial separation or discrimination. The Act makes obtaining a pardon much easier than under regular Louisiana law and allows family members to petition on behalf deceased relatives. The Avery Act does not apply to convictions for other crimes such as resisting arrest, trespass, or assault and battery – crimes often used to target civil rights activists.
- “The Avery C. Alexander Act,” LSA-R.S. 15:572.9 (2010)
Individual State Pardons
Thomas and Meeks Griffin, South Carolina
Tom Joyner is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, and is heard daily by millions of listeners. He was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2008. His grandfather, Oscar “Doc” Joyner is a remembered Pullman porter who became a medical doctor. Joyner recently witnessed state officials sign the document officially pardoning his two grand uncles, Thomas and Meeks Griffin, for the 1913 murder of a white farmer.
Nearly 100 years had passed since his great-uncles, Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin, were wrongfully executed in South Carolina. On Wednesday, a board voted 7-0 to pardon both men, clearing their names in the 1913 killing of a veteran of the Confederate Army. It marks the first time in history that South Carolina has issued a posthumous pardon in a capital murder case. Joyner made the journey to Columbia, South Carolina, with his wife, his sons, his brother, nieces and nephews.
- Seanne Adcox, South Carolina Board Pardons 2 Black Men Executed 94 Years Ago, Associated Press, Oct. 14, 2009
- Wayne Drash, Tom Joyner Gets Justice for Electrocuted Kin: 94 Years Later, CNN, Oct. 15, 2009
Cleveland Sellers, South Carolina
In 1968, Cleveland Sellers was arrested in connection with what would become known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Police allege Sellers instigated a confrontation between the law officers and the protesters, resulting in the death of three student protesters. Sellers, a former SNCC chairman, was convicted and spent several years in prison. In 1993, the Pardon Board of the State of South Carolina pardoned Sellers. The pardon freed Sellers to continue his academic career unimpeded by a felony record.
- Cleveland Sellers, The River of No Return (New York: 1973)
- Adam Parker, Warrior Evolves into Leader, The Post and Courier (Charleston S.C.), Sep. 21, 2008
Clyde Kennard, Mississippi
In 2006, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi rejected the demands of a national campaign to pardon Clyde Kennard. Kennard tried to attend the segregated University of Southern Mississippi. Mississippi state officials denied his repeated applications and plotted to kill him. They were successful in framing Kennard on a charge of theft (stealing chicken feed), and in 1960 he was sentenced to 7 years. Kennard became ill in prison and was released. However, he died in 1963. In 2006, a Mississippi state court expunged his conviction after the only witness who testified against Kennard recanted his testimony. Governor Barbour refused to grant a posthumous pardon.
- Adam Liptak, Pardons Unlikely for Civil Rights Advocate, N.Y. Times, May 4, 2006
- Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law – The Center worked to petition the governor for a pardon.
Betty Claiborne, Louisiana
In 1963, Betty Claiborne and her sister Pearl George were arrested for attempting to integrate the City Park Pool in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Claiborne was arrested and jailed for ten days. After forty-two years, Governor Blanco pardoned Claiborne in connection with the 2005 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
- Mark Saltz, Louisiana Will Pardon Activist in Honor of MLK Day, U.S.A. Today, Jan. 17, 2005
Lena Baker, Georgia
In 1944, Lena Baker was tried and convicted of killing a white man who she claimed held her in slavery and threatened to kill her. The all-white male jury convicted her after a one-day trial, rejecting her claim of self-defense, despite significant evidence that she was beaten, and she was sentenced to death. Baker sought clemency from the Board of Pardons and Paroles for clemency and was denied. She is the only woman ever electrocuted in Georgia.
In 2005, the Board granted a posthumous pardon to Lena Baker. The Board made clear that the pardon was not based on a finding of innocence but on the grounds that the Board erred in 1945 in denying her clemency.
- Shaila Dewan, A Crescendoing Choir from the Graveyards of History, N.Y. Times, Aug.. 21, 2005
Montana Sedition Project
During World War I, twenty-seven states passed sedition laws, used to target the Wobblies and other socialist or anarchist groups. In Montana seventy-nine men and women were convicted of sedition. Almost all of the convictions were based on casual statements made by those arrested that were perceived as pro-German or anti-American. One man was pardoned after the war. Interest in these convictions was renewed as a result of efforts of the Sedition Project at the University of Montana School of Journalism. In 2006, the governor of Montana granted seventy-eight pardons for those accused of sedition from 1918-1919.
- The Montana Sedition Project
- Maurice Possley, The Sedition Project Aims for Posthumous Pardons, L.A. Times, Dec. 30, 2005
In 1999, President Clinton pardoned Henry Flipper, the first African-American graduate from West Point, fifty-nine years after his death. Flipper was accused of embezzling money and was court-marshaled by the Army in 1881 on a charge of thievery. Acquitted of the thievery charge, he was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for lying to investigators.
In 1882 he received a dishonorable discharge. The Judge Advocate General concluded that Flipper had been persecuted because of his race; however, the conviction could not be set aside by military laws as they stood at that time. President Arthur could have reversed the conviction, but chose to affirm it instead. In 1976 Flipper’s military status was changed and in 1999, 117 years after his conviction, he was pardoned.
- National Archives & Records Administration, Lt. Henry O. Flipper’s Quest for Justice.
- Henry Ossian Flipper, The Colored Cadet at West Point (1969).
During the Vietnam War, Preston King of Albany, Georgia, received an initial deferment from military service to complete a master’s degree at the London School of Economics. When King showed up at the draft board, the members realized he was African-American and refused to extend additional deferments. They began to refer to him as Preston rather than as Mr. King, as they had in their letters to him. Before he would take the physical, Preston King insisted that the Board address him formally, like the white draftees. The Board refused, and King was tried and convicted of draft evasion. He fled the country and returned to London where he became a prominent political scientist at the London School of Economics. King could not return to the United States until 2000, 39 years after his conviction, when President Clinton pardoned him.
- Philip Shenon, Pardon Lets Black Exile Come Home, N.Y. Times, Feb. 22, 2000
- Preston King, The New Georgia Encyclopedia
Fort Lawton, Washington
During World War II, a riot broke out between American soldiers and Italian prisoners of war at Fort Lawton in Washington State. The morning after the riot an Italian was found lynched at the military post. Forty-three soldiers were court-martialed and twenty-eight, all African-American, were found guilty of rioting. Some of the sentences were reduced, but many soldiers served prison time.
Four of the convicted soldiers and two members of Congress filed a petition to reopen the case before the Army Board of Corrections of Military Records. The Board found that the soldiers’ convictions were flawed. Two lawyers represented all forty-three soldiers and they only had thirteen days to prepare for trial. The ruling awarded back pay, without interest, to the four soldiers or their families. The families of other soldiers must request a review of their specific cases.
On October 14, 2008, President Bush signed legislation authorizing the Army to pay compound interest on back pay and benefits due to the wrongly convicted Fort Lawton Soldiers, as part of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2009.
- Jack Hamann, On American Soil ( 2005)
- Jack Hamann, Latest News On American Soil
- Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009, Pub. Law No. 110–417 (2008)
- Dept. of the Army, Record of Proceedings, Docket Number AR20060025002 (Oct. 18, 2007)
Pardons – Internationally
We have provided a selection of examples of how pardons are used in countries such as Canada and South Africa. This is not an exhaustive list.
In Canada, the National Parole Board reviews pardon requests. The Nova Scotian government officially pardoned and issued an apology to Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond in a ceremony April 15, 2010, attended by Premier Darrell Dexter and Minister of Justice Landry Ross. Desmond, an African-Canadian woman who died in 1965, was fined $20 and jailed overnight in 1946 on charges that stemmed from her refusal to leave an area of a theater reserved for white patrons. Dexter apologized to Desmond’s family, including her sister, Wanda Robson, and all African Nova Scotians for the government’s actions against Desmond.
- Matt Glenn, Nova Scotia Government Posthumously Pardons Civil Rights Icon, Jurist, April 16, 2010
- Government of Nova Scotia, Press Release, Late Viola Desmond Granted Apology, Free Pardon (Apr. 15, 2010)
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was authorized in 1996 to pardon those who had committed political crimes during the apartheid era. The Amnesty committee was given the power to consider and decide petitions for amnesty, which included being absolved of all criminal and civil consequences of the applicant’s actions. The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act No. 34 of 1995 provided the basis of the committee’s power. In 2000, after the window of application to the TRC ended, President Thabo Mbeki established a process by which people convicted of political wrongdoing could apply for a presidential pardon.