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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Chapter 3

Esther Brown:
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty

Esther Brown is the outside voice for PHADP. Esther is the glue that holds the abolition movement together in Alabama, and a wonderful cast of characters both inside and out surrounds her.  Gary Drinkard was on the board when he was on death row. Since his exoneration he serves on the advisory board along with Callie Greer and others.
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty also publishes the newsletter On Wings Of Hope, a print publication created inside Death Row at Holman Prison in Alabama. With the exception of occasional outside contributors, it is written and edited by prisoners on Death Row.
An interview by Brandon Wallace of in 2008 discussing the execution of Darrell Grayson tells us a lot about Esther: 

On becoming aware of the case of Darrell Grayson, the 46-year-old Black man who was executed this past Thursday on flimsy evidence that did not include DNA testing and who was found guilty by an all-white jury in 1981 Alabama, I felt that I had to do something. I contacted Lisa Thomas, whose dedication to Grayson's cause obliged her to stage two walks - one from Selma to Washington D.C. and one from Selma to Montgomery in protest of the death penalty and in support of Grayson, and I asked her if I could interview her for JuliusSpeaks. In turn, Ms. Thomas gave my information to Esther Brown of Project Hope, an organization for people on death row in the state of Alabama that serves as a support group, works to abolish the death penalty, and advocates for the cases of death penalty inmates. Brown serves as the outside contact person for the group. We had a lengthy discussion over the phone and later she replied to some direct questions over email.
Esther Brown is a feisty older lady, who came to the United States fifty years ago and who has dedicated a large part of her life to ending the death penalty, a cause which burns deep within her soul. When asked if there was anything she might say to Alabama governor Bob Riley, Brown replied, “It perhaps would not be printable." When I asked her to talk about Grayson, she told me that over the years she and Grayson had become the closest of friends. She described him as being "more thirsty for knowledge than anyone I ever met." When Grayson entered prison in 1982 at the age of 19, he suffered a severe depression, after which he vowed to "make something of his life." He applied for a pell grant, earned an Associate's Degree and became a poet and writer, publishing three chapbooks and serving as a correspondent for a Black-owned Alabama newspaper. In that time, Grayson also helped to found and became the chairperson of Project Hope, which was founded by Alabama Death Row Inmates in 1989.
When I asked Ms. Brown what life was like for Grayson on Death Row, she said that life for him was solitary, but that he kept himself involved because he "wanted to make a difference and leave the world a better place than he found it." In a conversation between the two of them about his life, she says he sighed and said whimsically, "Darling, this is prison." Over the years, Brown says that she and the Alabama Death Row inmates of Project Hope have become a close-knit family, saying that "family isn't about bloodlines, it's about connection." In terms of family, Grayson has one sister who stuck by him throughout his ordeal in the justice system.
In terms of allies who aided in Grayson's case, Brown says one of the strongest allies they had was Alabama state senator, Hank Sanders, Democrat. Senator Sanders has constantly introduced moratorium resolutions before the state assembly over a number of years to no avail, objecting to the racial and class discrimination that is inherent in the death penalty. According to Brown, Senator Sanders said of the moratorium bill, "Anything concerning race and poverty has a tough time in Alabama." Other allies in Grayson's struggle were the NAACP who has their own effort to end the death penalty, the group Alabama Arise, and the New South Coalition.
Racial and class bias are inherent in death penalty cases throughout the United States; cases where white victims are involved receive death penalty sentences far more than those in which there are black victims, blacks are the usual victims of violent crimes, black defendants receive death penalty sentences more than white defendants and throughout the system many who are convicted cannot afford adequate representation, leaving lower-income defendants to the mercy of uncaring public defenders who do little to advocate on their behalf. In the case of Darrell Grayson, Grayson, who grew up in poverty in Alabama and was convicted of murder by an all-white jury in 1981, was not able to afford decent representation and as a result witnesses who needed to be interviewed regarding the case were not interviewed and all of the evidence that pointed away from Grayson and that was taken care of through affidavits was ignored by the current governor of Alabama and other state officials. One of the major issues in Grayson's case was the failure of the state to do a post-conviction DNA test; a test which Grayson and others felt might exonerate him. When he was convicted in 1981 by an all-white jury, there was no such thing as DNA testing. After Grayson received his execution date, the Innocence Project, a national organization that pushed for DNA testing in death penalty cases, picked up Grayson's case and advocated for him. Alabama's governor Bob Riley refused all pleas for DNA testing in Grayson's case, even after Grayson supporter Lisa Thomas staged a walk from Selma to Montgomery in support of Grayson and to end the death penalty.
In turning to a discussion of the injustice and inhumanity that is the death penalty; Ms. Brown adamantly told me that the death penalty and the practice of lynching are the same thing. Indeed, lynching and the practice of the death penalty in the United States have a related and twisted history in the United States. In her reasoning for abolishing the death penalty, Ms. Brown stated that "Fallible people are in charge of the justice system, for that reason alone there should be no death penalty." Brown says that the Association of African American Police Chief Deputies has recently issued a statement declaring that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. In her fight to end the death penalty, Brown says that her message to the public is "We are going to continue our fight in the spirit of Darrell Grayson."

Interview with Esther Brown
What was Darrell's life like in prison? What were his living conditions?
Brown: Darrell's life in prison was solitary. He spent much of the time reading, writing poetry, working on PHADP matters and on the phone with me for 3-4 hours daily. The board of PHADP meets once a week and they call me from their meeting.

How big is Project Hope? How many people are involved?
Brown: How big is PHADP? Depends on how you count it. About 30 men on death row, I am the full time volunteer chief cook and bottle washer, our web master and 600+ on our email list and 1,000 on our mailing list, not all of these in Alabama. We work together with grassroots organizations, Alabama New South Coalition, Alabama Arise, Peace groups around the state, NAACP where I am the chair of its Death Penalty/Moratorium committee. Smaller groups as well as the Quest of Social Justice in Mobile, TOPS of Dothan and others are involved.

It seems that Darrell was making something of his life. He was getting his education, becoming an activist and an organizer. How did this transformation come about?
Brown: His career as an activist and organizer was fostered by joining PHADP, working his way up through the ranks and of course my giving him a voice. It is hard to be heard from death row unless there is someone on the outside who promotes you.

At any time did Darrell receive any help from the ACLU, NAACP, or other civil rights organizations?
Brown: The help Darrell received from civil rights organizations came from Alabama New South Coalition,(of which I am a member) and the NAACP.  Both made statements, wrote to the Governor, came to the rally on Wednesday, i.e. Senator Hank Sanders and Ed Vaughn. Judy Collins, my close friend is first vice chair of ANSC and was in a large degree instrumental in rallying the forces for the rally. Greater Birmingham Ministries was involved. I'm just hoping that I am not leaving anyone out!

Tell me about the Innocence Project.
Brown: The Innocence Project takes on cases where there is DNA and the possibility of innocence.

Alabama has a legacy with regards to Black men and the death penalty, whether with the courts or through the practice of lynching. Do you think that Darrell Grayson was a victim of racism?
Brown: Of course! An all white jury in 1981, an all white courtroom, a white victim? The modern day lynching. 80% of the men on death row are there because of a white victim, yet more African Americans are murdered than whites!

If you had the opportunity, what would you say to Governor Riley?
Brown: What would I say to the Governor? Perhaps not printable! I hope you never take the pledge of allegiance and say with justice for all! Alabama does not know what that means and the rest of the world cannot believe how we are still back in the dark ages of racism. And you know, to quote Bryan Stevenson of EJI Alabamians with their terrible history do not have the right to execute a black man. The question we must ask is not whether that person deserves to die but whether we deserve to kill.

Do you have anything else you would like to say? Perhaps to the public?
Brown: We will persevere, now more than ever and we will overcome one day!

Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty made this post to Facebook on February 2, 2012:

Journey of Hope from Violence to Healing in East Alabama - Thank You, Bill Pelke!
Yesterday was truly a great day for East Alabama. We had already had two earlier events, bringing the total of events in this area to five. Of course, many others were held all over Alabama and are still being held before this very successful journey ends on the 6th in Montgomery.
We are very grateful to JAM who initiated this and in our area to Judy Collins who worked so hard for East Alabama. These were events that will never be forgotten by those who attended. Thank you to all for your part in this journey. Most of all, of course, thank you, Bill, for your personal journey and for sharing it with all who will listen. It is now our challenge to continue this journey towards abolition in Alabama!

Esther: Thank you for those wonderful words.   It is now our challenge to continue This Journey Towards Abolition in Alabama.

Brian Anderson, reporter for the Anniston Star, attended our talk at Jacksonville State University. This is how he saw the Journey of Hope’s role in this Journey towards Abolition in Alabama: Forgiveness Key in Group’s Fight Against Death Penalty. To me that was wonderful.
I was happy to read the headline of the article. Forgiveness is the key with the Journey of Hope. Yes, we are all against the death penalty, but forgiveness is our key as we move towards abolition.  The answer is love and compassion for all of humanity. 

I had a heavy, but welcomed itinerary.  I repeatedly told Shelley and Judy Collins to not hold back and to pile it on.  They made a really great pile. This was my schedule:

Birmingham, AL – Jan. 10, 7:00 p.m., Bluff Park United Methodist Church, 730 Valley Street, Hoover. Bill Pelke and Fisher Humphreys will speak.
Cullman, AL – Jan. 12, 7:00 p.m., Retreat Center at Sacred Heart Monastery, 916 Convent Rd. NE. Bill Pelke and Shelley Douglass will speak.
Birmingham, AL – Jan. 15, 9:00a.m.  Baptist Church of the Covenant, morning worship and Sunday School
Huntsville, AL – Jan. 17, 7:00 p.m., Trinity United Methodist Church, 607 Airport Rd SW. Bill Pelke and Fisher Humphreys will speak.
Birmingham, AL – Jan. 18, 7:50am-2:30p.m. John Carroll Catholic High School  5 religion classes
Birmingham, AL – Jan. 19, 1p.m. Samford University Fellows’ Round Table Series
Jacksonville, AL – Jan. 19, 6:30 p.m., Houston Cole Library on the Jackson State University Campus.
Wheatfield, IN – Jan. 24 4:00 p.m.  Christian Haven,  12501 N. State Road 49
Chicago, IL – Jan. 26 12:00 p.m.  Northwestern Law School: Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children
Chicago, IL – Jan. 26 2:00 p.m. Northwestern Law School:  members of clemency campaign for Jacqueline Montanez.
Mobile, AL – Jan. 31, 7:00 p.m. St. Luke Episcopal Church, 1050 Azalea Road
Auburn, AL – Feb. 1 11:30a.m.-12:30p.m. Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, brown bag lunch  
Roanoke, AL – Feb. 1, 2:00p.m. Roanoke Nazarene Church
Chambers County, AL – Feb. 1 6:00p.m.  Valley library
Green County, AL – Feb. 2, 7:00p.m.  Eutaw Event Center
Birmingham, AL -- Feb. 3, 7:00 p.m.  Mary’s House  - Catholic Worker
Montgomery, AL – Feb. 4, 9:00a.m.-3:00p.m.  Alabama New South Coalition
Montgomery, AL – Feb. 5, 11:00a.m.-12:00p.m. Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 8790 Vaughn                  Road Sunday School class
Montgomery, AL –  Feb. 6, 8:00a.m.-2:30p.m. Montgomery Catholic School  7 religion classes
Montgomery, AL – Feb. 6, 7:00 p.m., Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 8790 Vaughn Road.

It was a busy enough schedule, but then I also made a quick two day trip to DC on the 13-14th for a National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty board meeting. Normally I spend Friday and Saturday night in DC for these meetings, but I needed to return to Alabama Saturday night for a talk on Sunday morning. I have been on the board of the NCADP since 1996 (serving as chairperson 2004-2008) until present. I enjoy attending these meetings where I am able to listen to and give advice to others who are making a difference in the abolition movement.
I had planned to be outside of Alabama for 10 days during the middle of the Journey but committed the rest of the time to be in the Heart of Dixie.  I told Shirley and Judy whatever they lined up I would do.

When I learned that my friend Cathy Johnson’s brother, Dr. Steven Coppes, had died suddenly I decided to spend those ten days in NW Indiana so I could spend time with Cathy and see most of my kids and grandkids.  I would also be able to visit Paula Cooper in Rockville for the first time in 14 years and do several talks in Illinois.  

More about that ten-day trip later.  There was work to do in Alabama.

Jenny Steel, a writer for The Auburn Plainsman, interviewed me while I was still in Alaska preparing for the Alabama trip. She laid out the gantlet for me before my first Journey of Hope event.
A challenge!!!  The gauntlet was set.