His lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, was also in the midst of research about lynchings in the United States from the end of the Reconstruction period to 1950. He and a team of historians plied the living memories of communities across the South (and much further north than you would expect). The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, opened earlier this year, telling the story of the links between slavery, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, and mass incarceration. The museum opens with a look at the family separation on which the wealth of this country was built: a map shows where slave traders’ offices were located and helps us to understand what it must have been like to be sold as a commodity on the spot that the museum is erected.
The museum’s dedication coincided with the release of Hinton’s book. They are part of the same story.
SARAH KNOPP: In the Legacy Museum, there’s an exhibit where a person sits down in a prison visiting booth, picks up a phone, and a video recording of you is there to talk to them. How was it to record that?
ANTHONY RAY HINTON: It brought back a lot of painful memories, memories about 30 years of being locked away in hell, but I think general public needs an idea about what it is to be behind bars, and I hope this helps people to understand it. I wanted people to think about that question that I ask in the interview: “What would you do? What would you do if it were you serving time on a wrongful conviction?” People don’t think about a situation until they’re in it. I hope one person will walk away from that part of the museum and think about what they would do. But, yes, it was very painful to be back in that situation.
What was it like for you the first time you went through the museum?
It was mind-blowing. I can remember when it was just Equal Justice Initiative’s parking deck. But to see all the exhibits and the characters, that was something. One sign on display sticks out in my mind above all the others. It said, “No negro allowed. No apes in this building.” It got me to thinking about what do we need to do to be treated as human beings. And how cruel people can be to each other. Then I got to thinking, who was the person who came up with that? And what I have to think about him is that his parents failed him, never taught him anything about love. I thought about how they used mass incarceration as a modern form of slavery. But they were getting smarter and smarter, and they thought up a new way. Actually I don’t believe in the concept “mass incarceration,” it’s just a new form of slavery. I do the math: black people make up 27 percent of the general population in Alabama. But in prison we’re 54 percent. I just don’t believe black people are committing crimes at that rate. But to go through the museum and see Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and the sacrifices they made, and now I go through there and see myself in the same museum. It makes me feel like I must do more. I only gave up 30 years of my life — some of them gave up their whole lives for justice.
Many people, especially white Americans, are ignorant or willfully ignorant about what lynching meant in this country. How have you seen the memorial impact people?
I’ve seen people come and I overhear them. The young people really didn’t know. They haven’t seen it, didn’t understand what people died for. Every young person I know had the same reaction: “Wait, you’re telling me that this guy was hung for asking for a receipt? Are you telling me that this other guy was hung on the word of a white woman who said that he made a pass at her? Are you telling me that this woman was hung because they decided to hang her husband, and thought they might as well hang her right along with him?” I haven’t seen people come out with rage and madness, but I have seen people come out deeply disappointed that this had happened. I have seen people come out disgusted. Ashamed. And also rejoicing in the fact that we don’t live in that anymore. But the majority of people come out happy that we have this because we can move forward. We have this — people will believe it now. Your ancestors did it, but we can move forward now. We can move forward.
Most Americans, white Americans in particular, don’t understand the unbroken historical chain that links slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. How do you help people to understand it?
Well, for one thing I don’t buy the theory that they don’t understand it. I don’t agree and won’t believe that we are so ignorant or dumb. But for those that want to play the game of ignorance, all those people have to do is look at the slave trade and follow the historical trail. I refuse to believe that we’re claiming to believe that we can’t see. I can’t even fathom people not seeing the connections. It bothers me. It’s a case of living in denial. Even a person without an education can see that it’s all connected. And the only way to unconnect it is to acknowledge it.
You and I have talked about whether it’s possible to end racism. Talk about what you saw on the Row.
I know for a fact that it’s possible to end racism, but are we willing to do the things we need to do for that to happen? By just observing the Row, here’s what I saw. Every man wore the same clothes, ate the same food, showered in the same place. Every man had the same things. What it taught me is that, when we are all equal, what is there to be racist about? It didn’t hit me until one day when I realized that no one on Death Row called each other nigger. It was, “Hey Ray! Hey John! Hey Henry!” Everyone had a name, and we treated each other with respect. Are we racist, do you think, because we compete to have a better job and a better house? I would love to experiment if everyone had the same quality house and car, and same access to clothes. How would racism still exist? It’s been proven to me on the Row that people can treat each other with respect and equality. And these are people who came in off the street as the most racist people you would want to meet. I have a perfect example in my book, Henry Hays, who was a KKK member who killed a black man in a hate crime and was executed in 1997. I hope people read about him in my book. But here is what I learned from him: racism has to be taught. Your mother and father have to teach it to you. When we are born, we don’t come into this world thinking anything. You have to teach a child hate or love just like you teach them to count. When a child is taught love they will never intentionally make another human being suffer.
At one point we had affirmative action in this country. What if everyone at Microsoft did different jobs but got paid the same? What if everyone could do their own thing, but lived in equality? People who are working to accumulate stuff haven’t been told that when you leave this world, all the stuff is going to be left behind. If we all had everything we need, what is there to be racist about? I’ve seen that work.
What does this country need?
I think this country needs truth, about every aspect of things. Young people need to be told the truth. Let’s deal with history. Black people were minding their own business in Africa, and white men showed up in ships to bring them to America against their will to work them for free labor. Black people wasn’t here, we need to teach them that. What about all the money made off the sweat and blood of slavery? How much money was made off the kidnapping and rape? What about the land you’re drinking your tea on right now? America doesn’t want to bring up that point, does it? This country was built on separating families. Tell the truth. That’s how we’re going to move forward. Then kids will start having to ask their parents: Why mama, why daddy? Why did this happen? I’m a believer that the truth will set you free. And we all need to be free. Once we accept the truth, then we can go on loving each other the way we were meant to.
When you got out in 2015 and I asked you how you survived with your mind and your joy intact, what did you say?
I think I told you my faith, and through my faith I was able to use my mind to travel. And once I convinced my mind that I needed to escape, I never did look back. Every day I was gone somewhere. I met people that I never thought I would meet. Your mind is a thing that no one can stop you from using. My mind and my body were in England, having tea with the queen, meeting some of the most beautiful women in the world. If you have faith, then you truly believe that God will work it out. I didn’t think that way for the first three years. I was mad at God and the world. How could God let me be locked in a cage for a crime I didn’t commit? But after I got over that anger, I decided to live my life. I decided to convince men around me that it may not be the life we want to live, but we could live a life of dignity. I could imagine the dinner plates that they bought us to be a piled up with a big old juicy hamburger and fries, or a steak. I used my imagination to endure that hell, and to help others endure.
You sometimes say that things happen for a reason, and then you’re quick to add that we don’t have to like the reason. How do you make sense of what happened to you?
I make sense out of the fact that I truly believe that it happened to me so that I could come out and share what happened to me with this nation. I truly have to believe that it happened for a reason, and the reason is so that we could end the death penalty. So that the country could see — this is a man, he breathes like I do, his blood is like mine in his veins. I think that people are waking up and understanding it. Imagine if I were your father. Some of us have to sacrifice. But if I can sacrifice 30 years to end the death penalty, then my sacrifice wasn’t in vain. I often tell people that first a chicken has to lay an egg. You look at the egg. You crack it, and then cook it, and then you can eat it. But that’s a tremendous process it has to go through for some good to come.
I think that people relate to your story because it’s about love and friendship above all else. Is that why you wrote the book the way you did?
I was trying to show people that we are not living up to our true potential. We can do much better in this world, and we all have a role to play. No matter where you are, no matter how low you are, you’re not too low to reach out. If you’re drowning, does it matter the color of the hand that will reach out to you? On Death Row, I was able to give a smile where there was no smile, offer love where there was no love. Men began to see themselves differently, if we were able to let our pride and self-interest go and think about what we have to offer. Kids don’t need a pep talk, they just need someone to hug them and say, “Have a nice day.” It’s the little things. “Hey, if you need me, I’m here for you.” The book was to show that my mother taught me love and compassion. We can all reach out and help each other, if not in money, then in other ways. I hope everyone looks at themselves and says, “Hey, I can do better.” If America doesn’t learn to love each other, we will destroy each other. I’m hoping that my book will make people say, “If this guy can do it, and he’s in the bottom of the pit, then I can do better and I must do better.” I truly believe that’s why I went through that 30 years of hell, so people can see that only through love can we survive.
What are the most impactful things that you’ve done since you’ve been out?
The thing that’s had the most impact on me is that the world is not the same as when I went in. I can see the division even more, I can see the racism even sharper. The Klan got smarter — they took off the white robe and put on the black robe. But I’m still hopeful. Right here in Montgomery we have a museum and memorial where people can look at history, and just think, and take their time. For some people, this may be the only justice that their family every gets. So I keep grinding every day to get up and speak all over the country, and go change one heart and mind through my speaking engagements. The fact that I’m able to go around the country and tell my story, and to ask hard questions, and all in the name of justice. Justice not just for me but for every man and woman who breathes.
Sarah Knopp is program director of the Cultural Freedom Program in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has been an activist against the death penalty and for social and economic justice since 1997. She is a former high school teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District.
Banner image by Amanda Slater.