Pardoning the Past, Looking Towards the Future

Charles Weems and Clarence Norris, two of the Scottsboro Boys, read a newspaper in their Alabama jail cell.

Charles Weems and Clarence Norris, two of the Scottsboro Boys, read a newspaper in their Alabama jail cell.

At the start of this year, I wrote about Alan Turing, and the effort to get the renowned scientist and mathematician an official pardon from the the British government. Now, as the year is coming to an end, that pardon has been given: on December 23, 2013, the Queen of England officially absolved Turing of his crimes, just under sixty years after his death.

Similarly, back in November, the last three of the Scottsboro Boys who had yet to be exonerated were granted a posthumous pardon. (The Scottsboro Boys were a group of black teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of rape in 1931. The unfairness of their case and the trials that convicted them helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement.)

Though the stories obviously have many differences, they both show modern authorities attempting to rectify the injustices of the past with symbolic gestures. As well intentioned as they are though, this hardly seems like enough. Though there is some satisfaction to the fact that official records will no longer indicate these people as guilty of crimes they didn’t commit, their lives were still ruined by the charges unfairly brought against them.

So what value then is there in trying to correct the mistakes of the past? The past is past, and nothing can change it. But in granting these pardons, in admitting that mistakes were made, and offering some justice–if only symbolically–after the fact, we can hope that we are making a promise to the future. A promise that such injustices will not occur again, a promise that we can and will do better, or at least try.

At Morgan Reynolds Publishing, we spend a lot time thinking about history, about the past, about the thousands of events that have occurred throughout time that have led us to where we are today. Whether it’s the story of young men unfairly accused of a crime because of the color of their skin, or of a genius mathematician who pioneered computer science, or the way the spread of a disease affected civilization, or even the way a fashion designer overcame poverty to clothe a president, everything that has happened has the led the world to where it is today, for good and ill. By studying it, by trying to understand, we aim to understand the world around us, and hopefully–hopefully–have a greater grasp on where we are going and who we are. So that we can do better. Or at least try.

We don’t grant official pardons, but we do try to always present the truth, or as much of the truth as can be known. We believe that the facts should speak for themselves, that the truth offers its own condemnations, and its own pardons.

Thanks for reading along with us. We are looking forward to the new year, and hope you’ll keep reading.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Justice For Alan Turing, 60 Years After His Death?

ImageAlan Turing was a brilliant scientist and mathematician; as a codebreaker, he was vital to England’s efforts against the Nazis during World War II, and as a research scientist, his work helped pave the way for computerized artificial intelligence that we take for granted today. But his great legacy is marred by a criminal conviction: in 1952, Turing was tried, and convicted, of indecency for engaging in homosexual acts.

Even though homosexuality remains a heated topic of debate today, it’s easy to forget that homosexuality and homosexual acts were punishable crimes very recently. (Indeed, in many countries, it remains illegal.) In England, homosexuality between men was essentially made illegal in 1885, when statutes against homosexual acts were included in a new set of laws passed under the Criminal Law Amendment Act. These laws remained in effect until 1967. It was during this time that Alan Turing lived.

Now, a group of prominent scientists are calling for British Prime Minister David Cameron to officially pardon Turing, some 58 years after his death. The scientists, who include Professor Stephen Hawking and Royal Society President Sir Paul Nurse, argue that is time Turing’s “reputation be unblemished.”

This is not the first time that efforts have been made to get an official pardon issued for Alan Turing. In February 2012, over 23,000 signatures were collected for an online petition calling for him to be pardoned, but the motion was rejected by the British government. Before that, though, in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology to Turing, calling his arrest and punishment (which included forced injection of estrogen and revocation of his government security clearance) “appalling.”

The British government has also issued numerous honors and reminders of Turing’s legacy, including a street named after him in the city of Manchester, and a commemorative stamp issued by the Royal Mail in 2012, the centenary of Turing’s birth. Turing has also been recognized and praised for his work by UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for contributions to the fields of code breaking and computer science.

Still, these honors aren’t enough for the scientists demanding Turing’s pardon; they find it unacceptable that the legacy of such an important scientist and national hero is tarnished by a criminal conviction, especially since the crime he was convicted of is no longer illegal.

So far the government has not responded to this new request from the scientists. The previous call for a pardon was rejected on the basis that Turing’s conviction was legitimate and in keeping with the laws of the time, which Turing knowingly violated. As that response was just made in February 2012, it seems unlikely that the government will respond differently less than a year later.

Others questions the value of pardoning Turing. In an editorial in UK newspaper The Telegraph, writer Tom Chivers argues that a pardon of Turing would serve little purpose. Chivers agrees that Turing’s conviction and punishment were appalling and wrong, but feels that a pardon issued now will be of no use to the long dead Turing, and will only serve to be a positive publicity stunt for David Cameron and the British government. Chivers argues that it would be much more meaningful for the government to issue a pardon to all people unfairly charged with the crime of indecency. “Don’t pardon Turing because he was a hero and a genius,” Chivers writes. “Pardon him, and everyone else, because there should never have been a crime in the first place.”

Regardless of whether or not Turing is issued a pardon, the controversy does have the positive effect of bringing publicity and attention to Turing, one of the 20th century’s most important scientific thinkers, who was integral in shaping the world as it is today. Indeed, this debate shows just how relevant Turing continues to be, and how his influence continues to be shape the future.

UPDATE (July 22, 2013)- Turing will be pardoned by the British government.


– Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

To learn more about Alan Turing, his interesting life, and his contributions to science and mathematics, check out Profiles in Mathematics: Alan Turing by Jim Corrigan (ISBN 978-1-59935-064-6) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

Published in: on January 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Myth of the Twinkie Defense

Harvey Milk, left, and George Moscone

Harvey Milk, left, and George Moscone

The recent bankruptcy of Hostess, makers of Wonder Break and the famous dessert cake Twinkies, means the end of two famous brands. Since the news was announced thousands of people have crowded stores in search of Twinkies, intent on storing up the sugary snacks. The end of Twinkies also brings to mind a tragic and famous moment in U.S. history, one that underscores how sometimes the myth is more influential than the facts.

 On November 27, 1978, former San Francisco city supervisor Dan White climbed through a window of city hall and walked to the office of Mayor George Moscone and fatally shot him two times. Then he reloaded his handgun and walked down the hall to the office of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor, and shot him to death. White was quickly taken into custody.

 At his trial White’s defense team argued that White had been depressed at the time of the shootings. A psychiatrist called on by the defense to testify pointed to several changes in White’s usually impeccable appearance and habits as evidence of his clinical depression. One of the changes in behavior mentioned, almost in passing, was that the once health conscious White had begun eating large amounts of sugary snacks. He offered these changes and several others as evidence of White’s “reduced capacity,” which the defense argued was a mitigating circumstance that meant he was not guilty of first-degree murder but of a lesser offense.

 After several days of deliberations the jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Immediately there were protests and the violence of what came to be called the “White Night Riots.”

 The so-called “Twinkie Defense” became an instant sensation. However, the psychiatrist or defense attorney had never mentioned Twinkies. Precisely who first used the phrase “Twinkie Defense” is not clear. Some say it was a local satirist, while others say it was local newspaper columnist Herb Caen. Regardless of who first penned the phrase the words were never uttered in the courtroom. But that hasn’t stopped the “Twinkie Defense” from becoming an infamous example of how outrageous arguments have been used to free obviously guilty defendants.

 Harvey Milk’s life as a trailblazer for the rights of gay Americans is not overshadowed by his violent death or the myths that have sprung up around Dan White’s trial. Today he is remembered as one of the principal figures in the Gay Rights Movement. To learn more about his life and contributions to the progress of civil rights check out Morgan Reynolds’ biography of Milk, No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk by David Aretha (9781599351292 )

John Riley


Published in: on December 6, 2012 at 10:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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“I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight…”-Harvey Milk

A gay rights demonstration at the Democratic National Convention in New York City in 1976

This week, tensions have been high as the state of North Carolina voted for Amendment 1, which defines marriage as solely a union between a man and a woman, stopping progress for homosexual couples in the state looking for equal rights.

A day after the amendment passed, President Obama announced that he endorses same-sex marriage, according to the New York Times. Obama said in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

If civil rights activist Harvey Milk were alive, he would most likely be celebrating, as he is known for his fight for gay rights in the 1970s.

Wrote David Aretha, author of No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk, “[Harvey] Milk, the outspoken voice of the gay community, was a lightening rod for bigotry. In 1977, he had been elected as a city supervisor in San Francisco, making him one of the first openly gay Americans elected to public office in a major U.S. city.”

As Aretha put it, Milk “fought for the have-nots and left-outs, especially gays and lesbians,” and in 2009, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

And today, the president has made history regarding the issue of gay rights. The New York Times reported, “A sitting United States president took sides in what many people consider the last civil rights movement, providing the most powerful evidence to date of how rapidly views are moving on an issue that was politically toxic just five years ago.”

It has also been reported that younger generations are slowly taking over the voting booths, and they are in favor of gay rights, for the most part. And so, more and more voters are flipping the script on something that has until recent years been looked at as a non-issue, something that was just never going to happen: giving homosexuals equal rights.

Harvey Milk once said, “We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution. We have to give hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio…. They need hope!”

With younger generations taking the helm and the president’s endorsement, the LGTB community can maintain hope that one day they will receive the same rights that their heterosexual counterparts enjoy.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information on Harvey Milk and his work, check out No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk by David Aretha (ISBN 9781599351292)

Published in: on May 11, 2012 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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