Three BSW students traveled with Dr. Tim Rehner to the University of Alabama on Feb. 2 for the Dr. Ethel H. Hall 29th Annual African American Heritage Month Celebration.
The highlight for the students was the opportunity to hear speaker Anthony Ray Hinton, an Alabama man exonerated and set free from prison in 2015 after spending 30 years on death row.
The Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, helped investigate Hinton’s wrongful conviction, leading to a Supreme Court ruling, a new trial and eventually the dismissal of charges. Hinton now works for EJI as a community educator and was the featured speaker at the UA celebration.
Hinton’s testimonial was a powerful one, as quoted in a Tuscaloosa News story: “I want every man and woman for a second to close your eyes and I want you to imagine being in your bathroom with nothing but a toilet. I want you imagine being in there for 30 long years. Now imagine being in there for 30 years for something you didn’t do and ask yourself if you will ever be the same.”
Students Samantha Hotard, Janay Morgan and Miranda Williams attended the event.
“My biggest takeaway is that Mr. Hinton was almost killed by the state of Alabama for a crime he did not commit,” says Williams, a senior from Natchez, Mississippi. “How many more stories like Anthony Ray Hinton‘s will it take until we see the death penalty for the heinous and unjust penalty it is?”
Morgan, a senior from New Orleans, wants to work in the prison system when she graduates and is inspired by stories such as Hinton’s.
“I believe the highlight of Mr. Hinton’s speech was when he stated, if you’re not advocating or doing something to fix the criminal justice system then you are a part of the problem,” Morgan says. “In his speech, he gave multiple examples of how the system was corrupt, such as losing evidence and falsely accusing him because he was a black man. In addition, as social workers, we are called to advocate for people who are vulnerable and oppressed. In that moment, I knew I had to be the change he was calling forth.”
The event also served as a planning session for the Alabama-Mississippi Social Work Education Conference, also in Tuscaloosa, Oct. 25-26.