‘I Didn’t Go to Prison. I Went to Death Row,’ Says Wrongly Convicted Anthony Ray Hinton
By Erika Wright, The Birmingham Times
Anthony Ray Hinton believes in speaking truth to power.
“People often ask me has the Klan settled down in Alabama and oftentimes I tell them ‘no they didn’t’, read that book and I’ll tell you exactly where the Klansmen are,” said Hinton. “They took off the white robe and put on the black robe. They took off the white robe and put on the blue uniform. I am one that is up for truth and if you don’t want to talk truth then don’t invite me because that’s all it is.”
Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, becoming one of the longest serving death row prisoners in Alabama history and was later exonerated. His book “The Sun Does Shine” is a national bestseller.
Speaking truth was at the center of a conversation held Saturday at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church during Birmingham’s Inaugural Freedom Fest with Hinton, Mayor Randall Woodfin and U.S. Senator Doug Jones part of “Justice, Empathy and Advocacy”, an empowerment session, moderated by Denise Gilmore, Director of Cultural Preservation for the city of Birmingham, where panelists spoke about the importance of social justice and what can be done to advocate for change.
‘I Went To Death Row’
“When you talk about criminal justice reform it gives people the sense that something can be fixed, that something is broken, the system is designed to work exactly the way that it is working,” Hinton said. “We live in a country where we employ a system that sends men of color to prison for the rest of their lives. We have a system set up if you’re poor and black, you cannot get an attorney, so the system is designed to work exactly the way that it was designed.”
“We are led to believe that the system is fair, the system is nowhere near fair… “ Hinton said, “As I sat there for 30 years, reading, listening and understanding for the first time, I realized I didn’t go to prison. I went to death row. I didn’t go to death row because of something that they knew that I’d done. I went to death row because I was born poor and black and we have a system that you say reform, that I say is working on all ends because in this country, if you’re rich, white and guilty, you can go free.”
Cut Classes In Law School
Jones said the most significant thing that opened his eyes and his heart to the need for change and social justice was his involvement in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little black girls. He was a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, two members of the Ku Klux Klan, for their roles in the bombing.
Jones said he used to cut classes at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University to watch “his hero” Bill Baxley, the former Alabama Attorney General, prosecute the first of the church bombing cases involving Robert Chambliss, known as ‘Dynamite Bob’.”
“I saw then what Bill was doing and how important it was to send messages and how important it was for people to stand up and do those right things and it was not long after that I went to work for an incredible gentleman named Howell Heflin who was a U.S. Senator who was in the seat I now hold,” said Jones. “Judge Heflin reached out to the black community not only when he was trying to get elected but after he was elected and appointed the first two African Americans to be federal judges in Alabama… it was a combination of the buildup of things and I did a lot of work as a prosecutor and also as a defense lawyer and I saw how the system was just rigged against so many people.”
Jones also talked about growing up in Fairfield, Alabama in the 1960s and attending integrated schools when he got to junior and high school.
“Kids just want to have a good school experience and trying to deal with integration . . . and knowing all the noise that was out there among adults and politicians was a daunting task, but it was something kids tackled really efficiently,” said Jones. “Once I got into college (University of Alabama), I started getting involved in the political process and there were things going on in which people just demanded the change… there were a lot of things in my lifetime that really opened the eyes and my heart to a lot of things.”
A “Guiding Light”
Woodfin spoke of integrity, fairness and kindness as it relates to social justice.
“Integrity didn’t always exist in government, fairness didn’t always exist in government and even today in 2019, a lot of fairness does not exist in government and don’t even get me started on kindness,” he said,
The mayor talked about changes made in recent decades, but how much more has to be done.
“We think about what happened in the ’50s and ’60s and thinking about some of the strides we’ve made, but there is a long way to go in this arc of social justice. In that regards, I think if I’m in a position as it relates to those core values related to what’s my moral compass attached to social justice, we do actually have to be kind to each other… and we missed the mark. I think as it relates to integrity, we missed the mark, we have to be more intentional about having and showing integrity and then I think about fairness, be more equitable.”
Birmingham is a ‘guiding light’ when it comes to the arc of social justice, he said.