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In South, pardons for segregation era offenses

Civil disobedience charges at issue

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 for walking to the front of a bus and asking for a transfer. Black passengers were not allowed up front then.

"I thought to myself, 'If you don't stand up for your rights now, you never will,' " she recalled.

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 yesterday 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 Representative 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 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 requests it be preserved for public display.

Both states also would allow posthumous pardons. That could apply to Parks , 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, which established the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national figure. Parks died in 2005.

McClammy said he plans to contact Parks' s estate about a pardon for her.