Bill Would Clear Civil Rights Arrests; Many Mistakenly Believe the 1964 Civil Rights Act Erased Their Convictions

By Rushing, J. Taylor | The Florida Times Union, March 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Bill Would Clear Civil Rights Arrests; Many Mistakenly Believe the 1964 Civil Rights Act Erased Their Convictions


Rushing, J. Taylor, The Florida Times Union


Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE - On a Saturday morning in August 1963, Jo-Ann Martin Hughes walked into a drugstore in downtown St. Augustine and laid down on the floor along with eight other African-Americans.

The group's attempt to desegregate the diner was met with police wielding what Hughes at first thought was a decorative nightstick, until an officer poked her in the side with it.

"It was a cattle prod," recalls Hughes, now a 64-year-old retired teacher in Sarasota. "I felt like I was dying."

Hughes was arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct, and eventually served two months in jail for the only arrest of her life. Along with her friends, she mistakenly believed the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act erased the incident from her past. But it wasn't, as she discovered during a routine background check in 1996.

To this day, Hughes' otherwise spotless background is still marred by the 1963 arrest.

"It makes me feel awful," she said. "I was demonstrating for something that was very unjust for all minorities at the time, and I had considered myself a success all these years since then."

On Tuesday, the Florida Legislature finally began to do something about it. A bill by Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville and chairman of the Legislature's Black Caucus, unanimously passed its legislative hearing before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Named the Rosa Parks Act after the late civil rights pioneer, Hill's bill would make it easier for people to obtain state pardons for violating 1960s-era laws that were meant to maintain segregation or discrimination.

If the bill passes, African-Americans convicted of protesting or challenging such bygone laws could apply to the state Parole Commission for a full pardon. State attorneys who represent the area where the incident occurred would be notified and allowed to challenge the pardon application, as a protection against pardons being granted for legitimate arrests. A hearing would then be held in such cases, with state attorneys in charge of notification. Posthumous applications would also be accepted.

Alternatively, someone convicted of such a crime could file an affidavit stating that the conviction was the result of challenging a discriminatory law. …

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