Bibb Graves was the popular two-term Democratic governor of Alabama who was expected to punch the tickets out of Alabama for five convicted Scottsboro Boys. The hoped-for pardons never materialized, however, because of disasterous pre-pardon interviews in November, 1938, just weeks before the sixty-five-year-old governor was to leave office.
Graves was first elected as the Klan-backed Democratic candidate for governor in 1926. He was replaced in 1931 by Governor Meeks Miller, a Klan-fighter who called out the militia to save the Scottsboro Boys from lynching in the days following their arrest in March, 1931. In 1934, Graves was elected to a second-term, this time without the help of the Klan, whose political power had been greatly weakened by the efforts of the Miller Administration. (Elected lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket was Scottsboro prosecutor Thomas Knight.) Graves was a big-spending, New Deal-supporting governor, and by his second term considered a moderate on racial issues. He was a smart, good humored, forgiving man with a genuine concern for the well-being of his constituents. Graves sent copies of the United States Supreme Court decision in Norris vs. Alabama, ruling unconstitutional the state's system of excluding blacks from juries, to every judge in the state, reminding each that the Court's decision were "the law of the Land." When Scottsboro Boy Ozie Powell was shot in the head by a guard, Graves told doctors to use "every effort known to medical science" to save his life.
Samuel Leibowitz began a campaign for pardons in 1935, arguing to Graves that ending the cases would save thousands of dollars, prevent the South from becoming a fertile recruiting ground for Communists, and stop "the carousel of hate." By September, 1937, Graves was expressing a desire to resolve the Scottsboro controversy in a meeting with the head of the Scottsboro Defense Committee, Allan Chalmers. Two months later, Graves promised privately to grant pardons to all convicted Scottsboro defendants as soon as their appeals were exhausted.
Graves informed Chalmers that the five incarcerated Scottsboro Boys, with the possible exception of Ozie Powell who was serving time for his stabbing of a prison guard, would be released on October 28, 1938, a date that was later reset as November 14, 1938. Three days before the planned pardons and release, Graves scheduled separate interviews with each of the five Scottsboro Boys. He told them that he wanted to help them, that he hoped they would confide in him, and that they would not do anything after release to make him regret his decision. As Graves described the interviews, the Scottsboro Boys turned in disasterously poor performances. When searched on his way to the pre-pardon interview, Haywood Patterson was found to be carrying a knife, which Graves assumed Patterson intended to use to stab a guard and make an escape (Patterson said he always carried a knife for self-protection). Ozie Powell was said to have "sneered" at the Governor and said "I don't want to say nothing to you." Norris, who had been feuding with Patterson, was asked whether he planned to do anything to harm Patterson when he was released and said, "Yes, I'll kill him; I never forgets." Wright and Weems did somewhat better, but Graves thought their answers seemed suspiciously similar and coached. He also was upset to learn that Weems, upon his return to prison, told other prisoners he had been to see the Governor and would soon be kissing the pen goodbye. Graves concluded that the Boys were bestial, stupid, and incapable of rehabilitation. He decided to reverse his decision to grant the pardons.
The Scottsboro Defense Committee and others who had been counting on the pardons mounted a full-court press to convince Graves to make good on his promised release of the five. Supporters of the pardons generally conceded that the Scottsboro Boys were far from models of good citizenship, but blamed their pychological conditions on years in prison for crimes they did not commit. On December 7, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a letter to Graves urging that he go forward with the pardons and reminding him that the five would soon be "at least a thousand miles from Alabama" and of no concern to the state. Supreme Court Jusitce Hugo Black also urged Graves to grant the pardons.
Despite the pressure, Graves refused to reconsider his decision. The Scottsboro Defense Committee published a pamphlet attacking Graves called "A Record of Broken Promises." Graves left office without granting the pardons.