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Pardon me? The Rosa Parks Act Sparks New Debate

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Democrat Representative Thad McClammy of Montgomery, Ala., sponsored the Rosa Parks Act, which passed the legislature in 2006. Governor Bob Riley has signed the bill into law.

The bill admits the wrongdoing of the government and allows legal pardon to the thousands of people who were arrested and convicted of violating Alabama's Jim Crow Laws, that is, the laws of legal segregation ("separate but equal").

Some have challenged the bill; they argue that to expunge or seal from public view the arrest records of the civil rights protesters would be a violation of history. (Note: the State Department of Archives and History will maintain the arrest records.)

Some of the protesters don't want the history erased or eliminated. They consider their arrests to be a badge of honor, a badge of courage, a badge of battle and a badge of victory.

Protesters must apply for the pardon, and so far, only one person has done so.

Ralph David Abernathy III of Atlanta will apply for the pardon on behalf of his father, Rev. David Abernathy, who died in 1990. Rev. Abernathy was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in the 1950s, served as pastor of Montgomery's First Baptist Church on Ripley Street. Abernathy III told the New York Times that applying for the pardon was "the right thing to do," because the Rosa Parks Act is the government's apology, delivered in "a spirit of good will and righteousness."

Here's the elephant in the room: Would Rev. David Abernathy want the pardon?

Let's consider that if someone applies for the pardon on behalf of Rosa Parks, for her violation of sitting in the front of the bus, she could also be pardoned; the same pardon exists for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., if someone were to apply for him.

Preservation of history

So, what happens 50 years from now? What happens to history? Will this pardons-for-protesters program result in history being rewritten or reconsidered? Is it erased? Will the civil rights protests be gone with the wind, as if the arrests never happened? Will the script be forgotten, that once upon a time in the American south the Negro did not have the basic rights of American citizenship? If the government admits with the pardon that it was wrong and, in 2009 is correcting itself through legislation, does it mean that the civil rights lawbreakers can sue the government for their unlawful/unjust arrests?

Remember the Jim Crow laws were state statute. Is the Rosa Parks Act a step in the way of reparations? Is this a major shift to the likes of a post-racial society? Or is this a mere correction?

Activists speak out

Political activist and author Conrad Worrill views the bill as legislative gamesmanship. "The question of such a bill is moot. The foot soldiers that ended America's apartheid under an unjust system overturned the system by protest. The government has finally come to its senses. Why must the protesters apply for the pardon? They should be given a blank check of pardon at the national level."

Activist and civil rights minister Al Sampson -- who was arrested for student sit-ins -- says that the pardon is insignificant.

I asked Rev. Sampson if he would apply for such a pardon; he replied, "It would be contingent on me receiving my file."

He explains, "What's important here is the file. What you want is the files from the FBI and the CIA. What's important to note is after Alabama, are the protesters for justice still under investigation and surveillance?"

Rev. Sampson argues that people should have a choice on the pardon and one of the determinations should include if the arrest record blocked the issuance of a passport.

The Rosa Parks Act is intriguing and raises several important questions.

In the end, the pardon could become as historic as Parks' arrest.