An Overdue Gesture: Birmingham Protesters Pardoned

By Michelle Chen Aug 12, 2009

It’s about time. The Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama seeks to put a small stitch in wounds left over from the Civil Rights Movement, by issuing a blanket pardon to activists arrested during demonstrations, sit-ins and marches of the era. In addition to erasing vestigial arrest records, Mayor Larry Langford has also called for refunding the fines imposed on protesters. People can voluntarily apply to get compensation for the fines, which ranged from $10 to $30, according to the Birmingham News. Overall, the pardons and apologies could impact thousands of protesters. Framing the pardon as a symbolic but important milestone (an earlier state law allows for the expungement of arrest records for nonviolent civil rights protests), Langford said:

Once again the world is watching Birmingham. Only this time they are watching us do the right thing and correct the ills of the past.

In the wake of a shameful historical legacy, the process of reconciliation is a complex dance of looking back and lurching forward. The issue of slavery reparations remains a political minefield. As illustrated by controversy surrounding Rep. John Conyers’ famous H.R. 40 bill (as in 40 acres and a mule), and the Senate’s recent disclaimer-laden apology, the concept of material compensation for the impact of racial oppression stirs up anxieties about how much, to whom, and to what end? Yet officials may be more open to redressing more recent atrocities. In 1994, Florida offered over $2 million in compensation to survivors of the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, in which a small Black community was ravaged and ethnically cleanse by white mobs. Last year, Florida joined a handful of states in issuing a formal apology for slavery. While the Birmingham pardons resonate with the same political sentiment, an unveiling of old arrest records this week touched on a more critical aspect of historical resolution: the durability of memory.

Civil rights activists view arrest records

Langford acknowledged that many would reject the pardon, as the people who broke unjust laws would see their arrests as proud testaments to a mass movement. Gwendolyn C. Webb-Happling, arrested and imprisoned as a teenager in Birmingham in 1963, told the Associated Press, "We went to jail for a purpose—to be free." Besides, as National Public Radio points out, many of the protesters targeted were just kids. In the “Children’s Crusade,” Black students skipped school to stand their ground against the police, facing an onslaught of firehoses and attack dogs that would later be exposed on television screens around the globe. In retrospect—with or without a pardon—no one examining the history of that era would question their innocence. Image: Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office via AP