Birmingham Mayor Pardons Civil Rights Protesters
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
The mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, has issued a blanket pardon to people who were arrested in the city during 1960's civil rights protests. About 2,500 people were jailed during that era of fire hoses and police dogs, and that included children and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Andrew Yeager of member station WBHM in Birmingham reports on the pardons.
ANDREW YEAGER: Carol Jackson-Walton(ph) calls herself an activist. She sits facing a podium and arc of chairs in a library meeting room, waiting for the start of the city council candidates' forum. It's civic participation that's far less intense than in 1963, when Jackson-Walton suspended her college career to march on the streets of Birmingham. She says police would round protesters up and take them to the courthouse.
Ms. CAROL JACKSON-WALTON (Activist): We looked up on the screen and I said, I was the first person to see a face up there. And I had a number. That's when it became real to me. I have a criminal record.
YEAGER: That criminal record would grow as she and others fought a city leadership, intent on maintaining segregation.
Ms. JACKSON-WALTON: I can remember going to jail once. We stayed one night, the next time was two nights, the next time in jail, three, four. And then, there was one - I know I was in there an entire week. But I count it all up, maybe 15 or 16 times or more.
YEAGER: Jackson-Walton's record could be changed, thanks to a blanket pardon issued this week by Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford. It would allow anyone convicted of protesting the city's segregation laws to apply for a pardon.
Langford, who faces a federal bribery trial later this month, says the idea came after a reporter called the city asking if Birmingham had ever issued pardons for civil rights protesters - the city hadn't. Still, the mayor doesn't expect people to start lining up.
Mayor LARRY LANGFORD (Democrat, Birmingham, Alabama): Because, to many who suffered during that era, it is a badge of courage and a sign of the struggle.
YEAGER: Three years ago, Alabama passed a law which offered a similar pardon. But a spokesman for the state parole board says just a single person has applied for one under that law. So even though the action may not mean much work for record keepers, Langford says the move is important for healing, as the city says I'm sorry.
Mayor LANGFORD: Sometimes an apology does more for the person extending the apology than it does the person receiving it.
YEAGER: Former U.S. attorney, Doug Jones, successfully prosecuted two former Ku Klux Klansmen for the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. He says the pardon doesn't just right a wrong, it sends a message.
Mr. DOUG JONES (Former U.S. Attorney): Just as with the church-bombing cases, Mr. Mayor, justice delayed does not have to be justice denied.
YEAGER: For many protesters who were arrested, people like Myrna Carter-Jackson(ph), they appreciate the gesture but she doesn't feel the need to seek a pardon.
Ms. MYRNA CARTER-JACKSON (Protester): Pardon us for what? What did we do that we need to be pardoned? You pardon people when they've done something wrong. So, I don't remember being a party of something wrong.
YEAGER: And now, neither does the city of Birmingham count any wrongs.
For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager.
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