For 45 years Clarence (Willie) Norris, the last known survivor of the celebrated "Scottsboro Boys" rape case of the 1930s, had held all the trauma inside.
One of nine black youths falsely convicted in the rape of two white women on a freight train near Scottsboro, Ala., in 1931, Norris was sentenced to death three times, spent 15 years in jail -- five on Death Row, broke parole twice and lived a fugitive's life for 30 years. Last October he received an unconditional pardon from the state of Alabama, long after the conviction had been overturned on the basis of insufficient evidence.
But those intervening years have not dimmed Norris' memory, and the power of his recollections shapes the "Last of the Scottsboro Boys," a segment of "Harambee" on Saturday, WTOP-9, 7:30-8 p.m. into a riveting, personal glimpse at an important passage of American history.
What merges in the half-hour as the camera focuses almost entirely on the set, lined face of 64-year-old Norris is the picture of a complex and confused man in highly hysterical times. His voice still shakes with fear as he describes the vigilantes outside the freight train. With a regret more from lingering frustration than hindsight, he even discusses his naivete about the judicial system and his fear and forced acceptance of the racist attitudes of the day.
"I cried many times in the courthouse, in the jails. I thought it was the last of me," he recalls.
At one point, Norris discusses why he broke parole and starts to cry. "When they gave me parole, I just kept getting up," he says. "I made up my mind. No matter what happened I wanted my freedom."
To the credit of the "Harambee" staff, Norris is allowed to ramble, with the show's interviewer, Carol Randolph, only interrupting his chronology with a few questions. At one point Randolph does ask what Norris recalls of the testimony of the two alleged rape victims.
His answer reflects the fear and helplessness that has never gone away. "The courthouse was filled with people. People jumping up, making motions with pistols. There wasn't a black person around," he says. "I had gotten disinterested in what they (the white women) said. It wouldn't do no good anyway."