Reflecting on Anthony Ray Hinton’s Powerful Visit

Georgia Rosenberg '19, Editor in Chief

He spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. A victim of a racially-biased and wholly unjust criminal justice system, Anthony Ray Hinton finally found freedom after receiving help and support from Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and the face of the Equal Justice Initiative – a nonprofit advocating for equal treatment in the American justice system.

On Friday December 7, St. Luke’s students and faculty had the pleasure of welcoming Mr. Hinton to the Hilltop. Hinton, whose heartfelt and passionate words were the subject of the CGL conversation that followed his talk, shared experiences of hardship, perseverance, and resentment as he recounted heartbreaking memories of sheer injustice.

“I grew up thinking that the justice system is truly color blind,” Hinton recalled, recognizing the harsh contrast between perception and reality that seemingly plagues the American criminal justice system.

For the entire St. Luke’s community, Hinton’s talk was truly eye-opening.

“As I listened to Hinton, I was torn between feelings of awe and outrage,” remembers Lynden Steele ‘19. “It was difficult to fathom how a man on death row for thirty years for a crime he did not commit could stand there before us – a testimony to his never failing hope – making the room erupt in laughter with his jokes yet also bring tears to our eyes as he recounted just how close the corruption of the criminal justice system came to taking his life away from him.”

Following his release from prison, Hinton wrote a memoir entitled The Sun Does Shine, in which he discusses the prejudice he faced as a young black man in Alabama that ultimately led to his cruel conviction. In the book, Hinton also recounts life behind bars and discusses his utilization of tools of escape and survival, including starting a book club and using the power of imagination.

During his day at SLS, Hinton visited several Upper School classes, including Ms. Yavenditti’s “Ethics of Global Citizenship” course and Ms. Birinyi’s “Art of Memoir” senior elective, in which he had the opportunity to talk to students about his writing process.

“I thought it was a story that needed to be shared more than anything,” Hinton said of his decision to write the book. While he did not hide the fact that reliving his experience – and especially remembering his mother, who passed away during Hinton’s time in prison – made writing the memoir incredibly difficult, Hinton focused on the power of the written word.

“[Writing the memoir] was like reliving 30 years of pure hell…but you can only pray and hope that [the book] will benefit someone else’s life,” Hinton said.

Throughout his hour-long talk, Hinton never failed to inject wit and lightheartedness into what was otherwise a deep, tragic portrait of racism and hatred.

“When the guard told me that I had a legal visit, I was on the beach with Rihanna somewhere,” Hinton joked as he recounted the unanticipated support he received from Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. With an infectious spirit and humor, he told the SLS community of his imaginary marriage to Halle Berry – and his subsequent divorce from her after his discovery of Sandra Bullock.

In his memoir, Hinton acknowledges the role that humor plays in making an audience more comfortable. This tool certainly allowed SLS students and faculty to find moments of relief during what was a wholly heart-wrenching narrative.

Hinton’s imagination became a powerful tool of escape. He reasoned that this system of injustice could lock him up physically, but not mentally.

“The mind is the most powerful organ you have…anytime you find yourself in a bad situation, use your mind to lift you up,” Hinton told the SLS community.

He also discussed his love for books and urged SLS students to read as much as possible. One senior boy asked Hinton what he identifies as his favorite book. His response? To Kill a Mockingbird.

“[For me] there’s a very personal connection… I’m Tom Robinson.”

Hinton consistently spoke of the value of an education. In his memoir, he regrets not attending college and acknowledges the importance of the learning experiences that he did have. In fact, Hinton wears a ring to symbolize his graduation from high school. Since his release, he is yet to take it off.

It’s hard not to ponder how Hinton could return to Alabama – and live in the same house that he grew up in – after the state’s system treated him as less than human. But Hinton has adopted an incredible sense of forgiveness.

“Alabama doesn’t kill in Alabama’s name; Alabama kills in the people’s name,” Hinton maintained.

“The system is designed to be fair; it’s about the people who run the system,” he continued.

Hinton’s ability to exercise compassion and hope for the future is admirable. Still, he has not gone without frustration.

“If [the system] is ever going to be fixed, you have to have a resentment for it,” Hinton said.

Now, he spends his days traveling the country to give talks similar to the one he gave at St. Luke’s. Hinton also works with Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative and participates in an effort to outlaw the death penalty nationwide.

“In order to fix this broken system, we need a revolution in this country,” Hinton declared. He urged the SLS community – especially students – to join this vital movement.

“If we don’t learn to love one another, we’re going to destroy one another.”

Even after all he has suffered, one thing is certain: Hinton remains full of love.