MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Opening a final chapter to one of the most important civil rights episodes in American history, Alabama lawmakers voted Thursday to allow posthumous pardons for the "Scottsboro Boys": nine black teens who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women more than 80 years ago.
The bill setting up a procedure to pardon the group must be signed by Gov. Robert Bentley to become law. He plans to study the legislation but has said he favors the pardons.
All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries. All were eventually freed without executions. The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding black people from juries.
The last of the men died in 1989.
The House approved the legislation Thursday morning in a 103-0 vote. The measure earlier passed the Senate 29-0.
"This is a great for Alabama. It was long overdue," said Democratic Rep. Laura Hall of Huntsville, who sponsored the bill in the House. Democratic Rep. John Robinson of Scottsboro said the pardons "should have happened a long time ago."
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a Republican, said, "You can't change history, but you can take steps to right the wrongs of the past. The fact that this passed unanimously shows that today's 21st century Alabama is far removed from the one that caused such pain for so many so long ago."
That distance is still being measured.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, applauded the correction of "an historic miscarriage of justice." But he noted that Alabama is involved in a Supreme Court case over the Voting Rights Act and has passed laws called discriminatory against immigrants in the country illegally.
"Like so many communities that have had tried to move beyond their ugliest chapters, Alabama has learned you can only move forward if you are honest about your past," Jealous said. "It's heartening that this was a unanimous vote."
"Unfortunately," he continued, "Alabama still needs to confront its present."