In December, Sala Udin was recognized by President Barack Obama with a presidential pardon.
The 73-year-old native of Pittsburgh's Hill District served seven months of a five-year prison sentence in 1972.
He was stopped for speeding on his way back north from Mississippi, with a car full of civil rights activists who’d helped African Americans register to vote. Also in the car was an unloaded shotgun and some moonshine.
Since then, Udin has worked in the community, served for more than a decade as a city council member in Pittsburgh and continued his work as a civil rights leader.
90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young spoke with Udin about the challenges of the American criminal justice system for black men and what the presidential pardon means to him.
On the challenges facing African American men:
The most acute difficulties and challenges I think, have to do with employment and the criminal justice system, and those two are connected. The criminal justice system, engagement with them, has collateral consequences, that makes employment subsequent to that very, very difficult.
On the ways having a criminal record impacted his life:
When I decided to run for public office in 1994, every time I had challenges in those elections, there was questions raised about my eligibility to hold public office, based on the fact that I was a convicted felon. There was always a need on my part to defend my right to participate in the democracy. It didn’t stop me. People who have criminal records should not sit back and say "Oh, I can’t do this because I’ve got a record." You should do it anyway. Make them stop you. Don’t you stop yourself.
On how he found out he received a pardon:
I submitted the application in 2012, and waited four years to hear anything. you can’t ask the FBI the status of the application, nobody has any answers. (President Obama has issued 148 requests for pardons, and 1,176 requests for clemency during his two terms in office.)
The difference is clemency gets people who are currently in jail, out of jail, but a pardon is targeted to people who are already out of jail and pardons their record, so I can understand it’s a higher priority to get people out of jail.
On why he thinks he received a pardon:
My lawyer and my wife think that my application was the best application for a pardon that was ever submitted to the justice department. If you look at the kind of life people lead once they leave prison, that has a lot to do with whether or not you’re going to get a pardon. When you look at my life, I’ve been a city councilman, I’ve been a community organizer, I’ve been helping people, so it’s hard to beat that record.
On what receiving the pardon means to him:
It’s a kind of a vindication of sorts, and a kind of acknowledgement of the life that I have lived and the contributions I’ve made. I was invited to an event where president Obama was going to be present on a visit through Pittsburgh at one time, and all invitees have to submit their name, social security number, employer, information like that, and I got the word back that I would not be admitted to the event because I was a felon. Oh that broke my heart. Whenever I saw my name in the newspaper, it always had to be followed by "a convicted felon." Now they have to include that I’m a "pardoned felon." That’s cool.