On the evening that my students and I met the traveling students from Phillips Exeter Academy for the first time, their teacher Olutoyin Augustus-Ikwuakor had a sheet full of activities planned for our two-hour preliminary session. Mrs. Augustus-Ikwuakor and I had corresponded in the spring about their trip from New Hampshire to Alabama, where they would spend four days in late November learning about social justice and Civil Rights issues, and she wanted her students to meet and collaborate with some local students. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, we were gathered in their hotel’s conference room to eat dinner together, to get to know each other, and to do some educational groundwork. As we looked over her list of activities, I asked if I could have a few minutes to talk with them about Southern history, and she replied, a little surprised, “Oh, you want to teach?”
I did want to teach. The history of the Deep South, with respect to social justice issues, cannot be approached casually, for that can easily lead to something like shell-shock. The brutality of this history is evident immediately to anyone who comes to survey a broad spectrum of museum exhibits that include graphic images of the burnt and battered bodies of lynching victims and scenes of police-led mob violence. This would be a lot to digest for a group of teenagers from New England who had given up the latter half of their two-week Thanksgiving break, and for my students, some of whom had only encountered the sanitized overviews in social studies textbooks and school-lunchroom pow-wows that celebrate Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. No, this was the real stuff. What these 27 students would see and hear constitutes the reasons that the Civil Rights movement had to happen, and needs to continue.
After we had finished meeting and greeting, and munching on double-decker sandwiches and chicken fingers from a local deli, we got down to business— and it was my turn.
The South is a land of myth, I told them all. This lesson is relevant both to outsiders and to long-timers. In this region, famous for its storytelling and for its violence, the understood truths matter more than actual empirical truths. The understood truths of white supremacy dictated many people’s actions, public and private, from the late 1700s until the mid-1800s. Those shattered ideals then became the myth of the Lost Cause, which dominated the next century, from the end of the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement, effectively laying the foundation for Jim Crow. Finally, those myths were shattered in the mid-20th century by a movement whose protestors declared, “We shall overcome,” and “I AM A MAN.” And for those of us who lived after the movement, those supremacist ideals are as hard to fathom as ideals of equality would have been for the Southerners of the past. So tread lightly, I told them, and be slow to judge. For these short days would only be glimpses into something very large and very complex.
The next morning, our groups convened in a misty rain outside of the Equal Justice Initiative law firm. When it was time to go in, we were greeted warmly and led upstairs by programs assistant Joshua Kubakundimana, where we sat down for a presentation by him, communications director Maki Somosot and law fellow Brooks Emanuel. For about an hour that morning, the students and us teachers listened and asked questions and learned just how bad it still is, how severe the racial imbalances are between the general population and the incarcerated population, and how EJI is working to raise awareness and to remedy these injustices one at a time. Then, as we moved from a general overview of EJI’s work into their death penalty work specifically, we watched a short video about one of their successes, involving a death-row exoneree named Anthony Ray Hinton.
Hinton, the video explained, had been wrongfully convicted of two murders in 1986. Though evidence in his favor should easily have cast reasonable doubt, Hinton, who was black, was convicted by a white judge, a white prosecutor, and an all-white jury. He then spent thirty years in a 5’ x 7’ cell on Alabama’s death row at Holman Prison near Atmore.
When the video was over, the EJI staffers, who had moved to the rear of the large room, turned the lights back on, and as we turned to watch them walk back to the front, they were accompanied by Anthony Ray Hinton. Nearly every one of us gasped. Here was the man himself, walking calmly and confidently among us, wearing a black three-piece suit and a red shirt and tie, his beard closely cropped and grey. As Hinton arrived at the front, I don’t think any of us knew what to say. I don’t think we knew whether to clap for him, or to wait on him to speak, or to go up and give him a hug. Breaking the silence, Hinton told us that most speakers would stand but that he preferred to sit.
For the next hour, Anthony Ray Hinton did what I had tried to do the night before: he taught. As he detailed his experiences, from his genuine surprise at being arrested while he cut his mother’s grass to his imaginative ways of allowing his mind to leave that small cell, Hinton showed us what true patience looked like. He had left his mother’s yard in handcuffs at age 29. Here he sat before us, nearly 60, after spending ten thousand days alone in a room the size of a walk-in closet. During the time he was on death row at Holman, more than fifty people were executed, he told us, and another twenty-two committed suicide. From the back row, I watched as many of the students wept along with Anthony Ray Hinton, who wept himself as he told his story with a mix of dry humor and firm resolve and deep sadness.
Seldom in my adult life have I been in the presence of someone whose suffering and whose humility about that suffering have combined to such great effect. Hinton wasn’t telling us his story so that we would like him or feel sorry for him. He was telling us a truth that he knew we didn’t know: how he and others find themselves in the belly of the beast, unaware of how to connect the dots between their actions and their predicament, and incapable of reaching anyone who can help. His example made it clear that the criminal justice system harbors some people within its wall who should not be there. Anthony Ray Hinton hadn’t researched this phenomenon, he hadn’t written a book about it, he didn’t found a non-profit to advocate for this cause—he had lived it.
When Hinton’s talk was done, it was nearing our time to leave, and he quite amiably agreed to have his picture made with the students. Yet, as I watched, the scene of that picture was endearingly grotesque. Here stood this large man, who had spent three decades in a living hell, surrounded by smiling teenagers, giddy and proud to be in his presence as though he were a celebrity. And behind them on a massive wall, shallow shelves held large jars of earth, collected by volunteers, which had come from the sites of lynchings around Alabama. Where Hinton himself was a living reminder of injustice, the rows of jars that reached to the tall ceiling testified to the enormity of the problem and to the length of time that it has been going on.
During his talk, Anthony Ray Hinton told us about how white supremacist myths put him behind bars. According to Hinton’s telling, before he ever stepped foot in a jail, one of the detectives who arrested him explained in the car why he would be convicted: almost everyone involved in his trial would be white, and he was black. And that came true. Where slavery and Jim Crow represent the most brutal aspects in Southern history, Anthony Ray Hinton’s story represents our ongoing plight in this land of myth: changing ourselves, our attitudes, and our values to the extent that race is no longer a determiner of outcome or opportunity. Until then . . . it will remain necessary to keeping sharing hard truths, and to keeping hearing them.