I traveled to Savannah, Georgia on October 1, 2011 with eight other Bennett College students. Under normal circumstances, it would have been exciting to journey to a locale I have never visited, but this was not an ordinary trip. We left before sunrise in a school-issued van full of luggage, iPods and emotions. After traveling through the rural south for several hours, we arrived at the Jonesville Baptist Church for a special 11 a.m. service. Based on the media coverage, there was no indication that we were walking into a monumental event. There were less cameras outside than at a Twilight or Harry Potter midnight release.
I can recall how beautiful the leaves were; the sky was a perfect, crisp blue. It was a direct contrast to the event happening inside. As ushers escorted us to our pews, a teal casket adorned with blue and white flowers lay a few feet ahead. Flanking the permanent tomb were two photos. One showed a child, with innocence and happiness in his dazzling brown eyes. In the other candid snapshot, that same child was dressed in a dark suit. His eyes were worried, weary even. He was on trial for his life.
At that moment, this experience became real for me. I was at the funeral of executed Georgia State prisoner, Troy Davis, a man convicted of murder for the 1989 shooting death of an off-duty police officer. Despite his claims of innocence and an aggressive NAACP and Amnesty International campaign to save his life – or at least postpone his death – Davis had been executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011. He died at 11:08 EST.
As his final days drew nearer, Davis became the face of all of the fallibilities of capital punishment. He was painted as the “every man,” leading to the creation of the slogan, “I Am Troy Davis.” Posters and t-shirts were created in his honor, to remind the world that at any point, one of us or someone we love could be in his position. Little black children wore these shirts to play in their urban neighborhoods. Colleges from Atlanta to Los Angeles gathered posters and rallied for Davis’ life. Fellow activists used Twitter to voice our discontent and grief at his impending death. We wondered if the concept of justice was plausible in the face of such monstrous unfairness.
Despite a petition with one million signatures and letters from bishops and senators, Georgia killed Troy. I wept. Hard. But when the tears cleared and my vision was restored, I realized that his death served a dual-purpose for me. It made me hold my brother, father, nephew, cousins, uncles and future sons’ closer, kissing their spirits with love as I imagined them in Davis’ predicament.
Attending Davis’ funeral and weeping those bitter, salty tears also reignited my passion for the intersection of journalism and activism.
I didn’t travel to Savannah just to show respect to Davis’ family and acknowledge the atrocities of capital punishment; I was there to film the impact of that experience for “The Lost Souls of Death Row,” a mini-documentary that focusing on the disproportionate number of African American men that have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. That mini-doc is included below. I was able to capture the raw emotion in the aftermath of Davis’ funeral and share that experience with dozens of people through articles, research theses, and infographics.
Losing the battle in Davis’ fight reminded me of the reason why I pursued a career as a writer, editor and journalist to begin with. I wanted to use words as a form of activism and empowerment, to provide voice to the voiceless. I use words to inspire, educate and entertain, but most importantly, words are my tools against the silence of oppression.
Journalism and activism aren’t supposed to mesh. Journos are “objective,” writing the facts and allowing the audience to create their own conclusion. That isn’t who I am. In my world of knowledge-based journalism, writing is a platform for activism. Through these words, I want to bring awareness to issues in mass incarceration, the lack of diversity in media and the impact of magazines on body image. That’s what Davis’ funeral ignited in me.
As I reflect on his death one year later, I am reminded of his final letter, which was included in his funeral’s program:
“I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.
I can’t wait to Stand with you, no matter if that is in physical or spiritual form, I will one day be announcing,
‘I AM TROY DAVIS, and I AM FREE!”
You are free Troy. You are free and there is still too much doubt.