Anthony Ray Hinton Shares Lessons on Overcoming Hate
If you knew that your life would end the very next day, how would you spend it?
This thought continuously replayed for Anthony Ray Hinton while he sat on death row for nearly 30 years. Unjustly charged with two counts of capital murder, Hinton was finally exonerated in 2015. After his release, Hinton shared his struggles and triumphs with the world through his memoir, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row. On December 15, 2018, as part of the “Page Turner” series of programming at International House NYC, Hinton shared his insightful and moving story with Residents.
Hinton unfolded his injustice to the audience, taking us back to 1985 in Birmingham, Alabama. Two area fast-food restaurants were robbed and the managers were fatally shot. There were no eyewitnesses or fingerprint evidence. Later in the same year, another restaurant was robbed and the manager was shot but not seriously wounded. 29-year-old Anthony “Ray” Hinton was arrested after the manager identified him from a photo lineup, even though he was working in a locked warehouse fifteen miles away at the time of the crime. A series of unfortunate events ensued. The police found an old revolver belonging to Hinton’s mother and state firearm examiners ruled that it was the gun used in all three crimes. The prosecutor told the court that the State’s experts found a match between Mrs. Hinton’s gun and the bullets from all three crimes.
Having no history of violent crime, Hinton affirmed his innocence. Although he passed a polygraph test, the judge refused to admit it at trial. Even worse, his appointed lawyer performed poorly because he believed he was not paid enough. Hinton recalled overhearing the lawyer whisper to his colleagues that his salary for Hinton’s case was “worth less than his breakfast.” Consequently, his lawyer employed a visually-impaired civil engineer with no expertise in firearms identification. With no credible expert to challenge the state’s assertion of a match, Hinton was convicted. As a poor black man in the South, Hinton was found guilty by the system and was sentenced to death by electrocution.
Hinton’s mama once told him, “If you man enough to throw a brick, be man enough to say you did it.” However, Hinton did not commit the crime and thus did not admit guilt, refusing the offer of life without parole. Instead, he wrote to civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson to represent his case. Five months later they met. While sharing with us the upswing of his story, Hinton chimed that “God sent me the best lawyer.” 16 years later, within the time that his mother passed away, the US Supreme Court took the case. All nine justices ruled that he deserved a new trial. With evidence confirming the bullets did not match each other, Hinton was released in 2015.
Beyond sharing his story of injustice and crucibles, Hinton offered important life lessons. One of them, in his own words, is that “just as you can teach hate – you can teach love.” For 15 years on death row, he formed a friendship with a former clan member, Henry Hays, one of the KKK members who lynched a young African-American boy, Michael Donald, in Mobile, Alabama in 1981. Although many were shocked and felt betrayed by his friendship with Hays, Hilton was empathetic to the reality that Hays grew up in a hostile and hateful environment, including his family, in which he was taught to hate. He reminded us that it was not just Hays who was guilty, it was the village that raised him that was responsible for his crime. By showing Hays the power of love, Hinton saw Henry Hays transformed during their friendship.
Hinton’s perspective is profound and even radical in post-truth modern America. In the 21st century, under the age of advancing technology and communication, we are isolated from people who don’t share our viewpoints more than ever. Hinton reminded us that it is our duty to listen and be kind to others, even if that person appears to be our enemy. As a Vietnamese American student and activist, I concur with his perspective. My previous research on the Vietnam War through oral interviews has shown me that rather than pointing fingers at historical errors, it is important that we listen to all sides, victims and perpetrators. It is important not to not only understand what happened but why these human atrocities occurred. This starts with talking to people beyond our own circles.
Hinton’s cell was only 30 feet away from the “slaughterhouse,” where the stench of death reeked and haunted him. Someone told him that he would get used to the smell and that one day, someone would smell his flesh too. Despite the adversities that Anthony Hinton endured, he remained positive and humbled. He effortlessly weaved humorous anecdotes in his heavy narrative, enabling the audience to be at ease while feeling unnerved by his injustice. One memorable recollection was that Henry Hays’ final request before his execution was an 8-ounce steak. He added that if it was his turn to request a final meal, he would ask them to fetch him something from the forest and keep making them go back to the forest in order to stay there as long as he could. From joking that he has been married to Halle Berry for 15 years to his thinking that GPS voice is another women in the car, he reminded us that there can be laughter even in the darkest time.
Hinton’s narrative is a testimony to the current injustices that fall on folks of color and low-income people, particularly black men. People of color accounted for 37% of the US population in 2016, yet they represent 67% of the prison population. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.
His story reminded us to be proactive rather than bystanders. We as a collective are responsible for injustices around us; by electing representatives and adhering to the system that oppresses and marginalizes vulnerable communities, we are invisible accomplices to these crimes.
As an aspiring civil rights lawyer, I experienced listening to Anthony Ray Hinton recount his story as an honor and a responsibility. Growing up in the immigrant enclave of Atlanta, Georgia, I have witnessed how race and poverty are obstacles to equal protection of the law. Personal testimonies of injustices remain unrecognized–from my neighbor who was prohibited from voting by a judge who ruled that she was intellectually disabled when she simply did not speak English, to my mother’s colleague who was never compensated for a head injury sustained at work. I view it as my responsibility to use my education and privilege to give back to underserved communities. Inspired by Anthony Ray Hinton’s journey, I hope use the law as a paramedic tool to revive lives paralyzed by the (in)justice system.
Thuy Hang “(h)Angie” Tran is obtaining a Master’s in Education Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she advocates for comprehensive educational opportunities for underprivileged students. In addition to being an I-House Resident Press Corps Fellow, she is currently the I-House Language Exchange Fellow and a Women’s International Leadership program Fellow who has previously served on the Resident Council as its Representative for East and Southeast Asia. Read more of (h)Angie’s writings on travel, decolonization, and self-care on her website.
(Photo by Leandro Viana for International House)