At our annual benefit dinner on Tuesday, EJI honored Mrs. Mamie Lang Kirkland, a 107-year-old survivor of racial terrorism in Mississippi, and Anthony Ray Hinton, who survived 30 years on Alabama’s death row for crimes he did not commit, with our 2016 Champion of Justice Award.
Mamie Lang Kirkland was born in Ellisville, Mississippi. In her speech on Tuesday night, she said she will never forget the night in 1915 when her father, Edward Lang, and his friend, John Hartfield, were threatened by a lynch mob and forced to flee their homes. She was just seven years old, but remembers clearly her mother packing up her five children to catch the next train to St. Louis, Illinois.
John Hartfield later returned to Ellisville against Mr. Lang’s advice and was lynched before a crowd of 10,000 men, women, and children who traveled from across the state to watch as he was hanged from a gum tree alongside nearby railroad tracks, riddled with bullets, and then burned. “That could have been my father,” Mrs. Kirkland told a rapt audience of 600 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City.
Last fall, 100 years after fleeing terrorism with her family, Mrs. Kirkland returned to Ellisville, where she joined hands with her son, daughter, daughter-in-law, and EJI staff, and shared a moment of silence and prayer.
Mrs. Kirkland said she left Mississippi a frightened little girl, but she is no longer afraid. She is determined to tell her story and share the history of racial terror and its legacy with “young people,” which, she observed at 107 years old, is essentially everyone. She was joined on stage by her son, Tarabu Kirkland, who expressed gratitude to EJI for our work documenting the lynching of John Hartfield and more than 4000 other victims of racial terror lynchings in America.
Anthony Ray Hinton shared the extraordinary story of how he survived 30 years in a tiny solitary cell on Alabama’s death row after being convicted of two murders he did not commit, based solely on the prosecution’s assertion that bullets from three different crimes matched a gun that belonged to Mr. Hinton’s mother.
In 2014, more than 15 years after EJI attorneys took on Mr. Hinton’s appeal and presented evidence proving his innocence, the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction. Last year, the trial judge dismissed the charges against him after prosecutors conceded that the bullet evidence did not match. On April 3, 2015, Mr. Hinton was finally released. He has spent the past year working with EJI to share his story throughout the country, passionately calling for urgently-needed reforms. On Tuesday night, he teared up as he expressed gratitude for EJI’s efforts to exonerate him.
For 30 years, Mr. Hinton’s childhood friend, Lester Bailey, has stood by his side. Mr. Bailey faithfully made the four-hour trip to Holman Prison to visit Mr. Hinton every month for three decades, never wavering in his support for his friend. Mr. Bailey and his wife Sylvia attended the dinner, where the audience gave them a standing ovation.
The evening began with an unforgettable performance by the incomparable Kathleen Battle, and featured the extraordinarily talented violinist, Sirena Huang.
This year’s event was the largest in EJI’s 27-year history, and we are honored and energized that so many of you were moved to attend the dinner and to support EJI. We are deeply grateful for your tremendous support.