NASHVILLE - 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, â€˜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 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 in the Legislature on Thursday 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 real effect, but she wants to apply for a pardon certificate anyway.
"I want to have it removed, frame it, and put it on the wall," Bradford said. "It will show I was arrested fighting for my rights."
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 in the Senate on Thursday. It now goes to Gov. Phil Bredesen, whose spokeswoman said he had not yet looked at the legislation.
"It's important because it recognizes that people did risk incarceration for social change and that they ultimately prevailed," said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, a white man from Memphis. "They should not have the stigma of that incarceration, or be put in the same class as other folks who simply just committed crimes."
The Florida version died in committee. The bill's sponsors plan to try again next year.
"It's important for those folks who stood up for their rights but were arrested just because of the color of their skin," state Sen. Tony Hill said. Some civil rights activists, like 66-year-old Johnnie Turner of Memphis, said they will not seek a pardon. She was arrested during a church sit-in in 1961, and considers it a badge of honor. "Some things are just history," Turner said. The Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights pioneer, was arrested numerous times and got kicked out of Vanderbilt University in 1960 for organizing lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville. Now 78, he was invited back to Vanderbilt last year as a visiting professor. He said that the Rosa Parks bills are a good idea but that the criminal charges have not been a serious problem for him or others. "Since my college days, I've been warned by various people that my arrests would hurt me," Lawson said. "But I have not found that to be the case."comments powered by Disqus