I was nearing the end of vacation about a month ago when my mother recommended a book to me. Despite the fact that the book she suggested was thirty years in the making, it’s actually a book that has been published within the past year. And I didn’t have a copy of it. In fact, I hadn’t yet heard of it. But when my mother recommends a book to me, I listen carefully. And this particular book came more highly recommended by my mother than most I can remember over the years.
The book is titled, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom On Death Row, and it’s written by Anthony Ray Hinton, in conjunction with Lara Love Hardin. If Anthony Ray Hinton’s name sounds familiar, it’s likely because Anthony Ray Hinton is the most noteworthy death row prisoner Bryan Stevenson has ever defended. Bryan Stevenson, as in tireless lawyer, passionate advocate and crusader for justice, and widely acclaimed author of the book, Just Mercy.
Anthony Ray Hinton spent nearly thirty years of his life confined to a cell on death row at Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama. In 1985 at the age of twenty-nine, he was convicted of attempting to murder a restaurant manager, despite the fact that at the time of the shooting, Hinton was working fifteen miles away cleaning a warehouse. Despite the fact that Hinton had no prior history of violence. Despite the fact that the gun police found at Hinton’s mother’s house and used as a key piece of evidence in the trial did not match the ballistics of the gun used at the crime scene. In fact, Hinton was not only convicted of the initial shooting, he was also found guilty of two other gun murders in the area that fit a similar pattern. As a result, the State of Alabama sentenced him to die by electrocution.
At 9:30am on Friday, April 3rd, 2015, after decades of legal appeals, numerous setbacks and times when it looked like he might be executed without having a chance to prove his innocence, Anthony Ray Hinton walked out of prison a free man. The title of the book mirrors the words he spoke when he looked overhead upon his release. No longer did he see the ceiling of his own tiny prison cell. Instead he saw blue sky and a sun that shone brightly.
If you read The Sun Does Shine through the lens of race, you will probably be angered by the racism that endures in this country and the way in which our legal system is unfairly stacked against people of color, particularly black men. If ever there was a book that destroys the myth of our “color blind” justice system, this is it.
If you read The Sun Does Shine through a socio-economic lens, you will probably be struck by the ways in economic means grant immense legal privileges in this country. People who can afford quality legal representation have a massive advantage when it comes to pleading their case and seeking more lenient punishments. Meanwhile, poor people have to rely on underpaid and overworked public defenders and they have almost no ability to access expert witnesses who could testify on their behalf.
If you read the book through the lens of friendship, you will be amazed at the loyalty and devotion of Anthony Ray Hinton’s lifelong best friend, Lester Bailey. Over the course of thirty years, Lester Bailey visited Anthony regularly in prison, never giving up on Anthony, never walking away and never letting go of the love they shared for one another. When Anthony Ray Hinton walked out the prison doors, Lester Bailey was the first person to greet and embrace him. Rarely will you hear a tale of friendship, particularly between men, as moving as the one described in the book.
Or you may find yourself reading The Sun Does Shine through the lens of hope and faith. Anthony Ray Hinton’s story is one of courage and perseverance. It spotlights a man who refused to give in to despair and anger, even when it would be hard to blame him if he did. It tells of a man who found a way to live his days on death row productively and humanely rather than simply marking time. It describes a man who managed to inspire and uplift both his fellow inmates and even prison staff over the course of those thirty years. And maybe most importantly, it’s a tale that ends with forgiveness. Despite being wrongly convicted and subjected to demeaning assaults on his character and his integrity, Anthony Ray Hinton survived and thrived by forgiving those responsible for his incarceration.
In the end, I encourage you to read The Sun Does Shine through any lens. And if you are still not sure, I want to quote one small section of the book. Anthony Ray Hinton’s cell was thirty feet from the room where death row prisoners in Alabama are executed in electric chairs. During the thirty years he was imprisoned, fifty-four men were led past his cell to the electrocution room. And every time a prisoner took his last earthly walk past Hinton’s cell, Hinton’s reaction was similar to this one.
We made a noise like I had never heard before. Some men screamed. Others called out Michael’s name. Others just roared and growled like feral animals. I made a fist, and I slammed it against the door of my cell as loud and as long as I could—until my hand was red and raw. The noise was intense, and you could hear guys from general population as well. I didn’t know Michael Lindsey, but I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone. I wanted him to know that I saw him and knew him and his life meant something and so did his death.
We yelled until the lights stopped flickering and the generator that powered the electric chair turned off. I banged on the bars until the smell of Michael Lindsey’s death reached me, and then I got in my bunk and I pulled the blanket over my head and wept. I cried for a man who had to die alone and I cried for whoever was next to die.”
That one paragraph in the book reminded me of the fundamental value of every human life. Even a man being led to his death in the bowels of an Alabama state prison. A man who, in the case of Michael Lindsey, did commit crimes of which he was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A man who died all alone in a small room at the hands of prison guards carrying out calculated, dispassionate procedures. Even that man was worthy of recognition. So Anthony Ray Hinton and others in nearby cells banged on the bars. In fact, to this day as Anthony Ray Hinton sits outside in the gazebo at his mother’s house, he still bangs on the wood whenever he knows an execution is scheduled at Holman state prison.
You and I will never know the extent of the pain and frustration Anthony Ray Hinton endured over thirty years behind bars. We will never know what it’s like to sit on death row awaiting execution for a crime we had nothing to do with. We will never know what it’s like to lose thirty years of personal freedom and still preach forgiveness to those who carried out the injustice.
But one thing you and I can do is look around the world where we live and follow Anthony Ray Hinton’s example by banging on the bars as loudly as we can…
When women courageously come forward to share stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, and even when women can’t or don’t choose to come forward to share their stories for whatever reason, we bang on the bars to let women know they are not alone. To let women know we see them and we hear them and their stories and lives mean something.
When children who have crossed the border into this country to escape persecution and violence remain separated from their parents…and parents wonder whether they will ever be reunited with their children again, we bang on the bars. To let immigrant parents and children know we see them and we hear them and their stories and lives mean something.
When thousands of men and women and youth across this country overdose on drugs every day, never finding the treatment or the support or the compassion they need to be in recovery from their disease, we bang on the bars. To let those who are addicted know that their lives matter and their days are not purposeless and we can do better going forward.
For victims of domestic violence and abuse and exploitation in many insidious forms. For people in the LGBTQ community denied their full personhood. For men and women in the military suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For all those who are judged and condemned unfairly because of the color of their skin and the balance in their bank account. For people with disabilities forced to navigate a world designed for those who are able bodied. And for all who are imprisoned in tiny cells on Death Row across this country, both fairly and unfairly, particularly men of color…
Like Anthony Ray Hinton, God asks you and me to bang on the bars because every human life has value. Every single person is worthy of recognition. We all deserve to be seen and to be heard and to know that our stories and our lives are precious and worthwhile.
And someday when the time comes for each one of us to take our last breath in this world, none of us deserves to be alone. We promise to bang on the bars for one another. Amen.