By Alan Bean
Thirty-eight freedom riders who rode buses to Jackson, Mississippi in 1961 to set up a tug-of-war between Jim Crow and new federal law have signed a petition on behalf of Gladys and Jamie Scott. The Scott sisters were sentenced to double life sentences for a robbery that allegedly netted $11. They have always maintained their innocence. But, guilty or innocent, a growing number of Americans, the freedom riders included, consider the sentences an outrage. The article from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger is pasted below.
Just one word of editorial comment: It would be great if more civil rights veterans would step up and condemn the New Jim Crow known as the war on drugs. Just a thought.
By Chris Joyner
Rabbi Philip Posner knows what it is like to be locked up in a Mississippi prison, and he thinks the Scott sisters have been in one long enough.
Posner, who lives in San Francisco, is one of 38 former Freedom Riders who signed a letter sent Tuesday to Gov. Haley Barbour and the chairwoman of the Mississippi Parole Board calling for the release of Gladys and Jamie Scott. The Scott sisters are serving life sentences at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility for their role in an $11 armed robbery in 1993.
The sentences have attracted national attention in recent months as advocates have ramped up calls for the sisters’ release. The women had no prior criminal history and maintain they are innocent of the charges.
“I was shocked,” Poser said, adding that the Freedom Riders feel “a natural empathy” toward the Scott sisters.
The letter comes as the Freedom Riders are planning a 50th anniversary celebration in Jackson in May.
The Freedom Rides were set up to test Jim Crow laws that segregated interstate transportation facilities in the South. Riders frequently were met by gangs of violent counter protesters or were jailed by local police.
Steven McNichols, another Freedom Rider who was beaten and jailed during a ride to Houston, Texas, in 1961, said the sisters’ situation is different than the one faced by the Freedom Riders, but the principle is the same. In both cases, the government is being called on to “do what it is supposed to do,” he said.
Poser spent several weeks in the State Penitentiary at Parchman nearly 50 years ago after he was arrested attempting to desegregate the Jackson train station. In some ways, the Scott sisters have it worse than he and his fellow demonstrators, he said.
“In effect, we were political prisoners, which in a way saved our tuchus,” he said. “We were protected in that way, because we weren’t thrown into the general population.”
The letter of support comes as the Scott sisters are undergoing a review of their case for possible parole.
Barbour ordered the state Parole Board to investigate the sisters for a possible commutation of the remainder of their sentences.
Prosecutors said at trial that Jamie and Gladys Scott were the masterminds of the robbery in rural Scott County.
The case rested on the testimony of two of the three young men who participated in the robbery and made deals with authorities for lesser sentences.
The three men have served their sentences and been released.
McNichols said the Scott sisters’ story “touched me emotionally.”
“To get life in prison to help two youngsters steal $11 is just shocking,” he said. “I can understand that people would think they should be in prison if guilty, but to get life? It’s just shocking.”
Catherine Burns-Brooks, who was arrested twice during Freedom Rides in 1961, said she was not surprised to learn of the Scott sisters’ sentences.
As a young black girl growing up in Birmingham, Burns-Brooks said she was aware the South had two systems of justice.
“I am familiar with how we were treated here and what happened if you got into any kind of trouble, big, small or in between,” she said. “I’d like to think things have changed, but something like this brings you back to reality.”
Jackson City Councilman Chokwe Lumumba, who is among those advocating for the sisters’ release, said the letter from the Freedom Riders is “very appropriate.”
“The chorus is growing,” he said. “We hope that this will encourage the governor to let them out.”
Officials with the governor’s office and parole board did not return calls for comment.