Monday, October 13, 2008

Forgiveness is a Widening Circle

From "We Welcomed Him into the Circle"

by Pat Clark

I have worked with many communities of color and economically oppressed communities that are suspicious of the term restorative justice. "Restore to what?" is the question I often hear from people who understand the role that social, racial, and economic injustice plays in the build-up of the prison-industrial complex. So we’ve come up with other words to describe this different way of approaching the question of justice when crimes occur—words like transformative, redemptive, healing. But regardless of what we call it, it stands for a change of vision.

There has been an increasing awareness that the present justice system is not about justice as much as it is about punishment, humiliation, and dehumanization. To create a society where the needs of victims, offenders, and community are really addressed requires a different set of lenses—lenses that acknowledge that victim family members have a great capacity for compassion and forgiveness, that offenders have the potential for transformation and redemption, and that communities can only be healthy when we recognize and embrace the needs of all of their members.

I saw this reality demonstrated during my time with the Southern Poverty Law Center in the mid-1980s. I was working with the KlanWatch Project, which monitored the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other groups. At one point I became involved in a case involving a woman named Beulah Mae Donald. Her son, Michael, had been murdered by the United Klans of America.

In Mobile, a white woman had been raped by a black man and the case was before the court. The jury selected for the case was a mixed jury. The Klan felt very strongly that, because the jury was mixed, there was no way that this black man who’d been accused of raping this white woman would be convicted. So they decided they needed to send a message to the black community that black people shouldn’t be serving on juries.

Four Klansmen set out in a car to find a black person they could punish. The first person they stopped was an older black man, but he was at a pay phone and they were afraid he might be able to alert someone. So they went on until they saw nineteen-year-old Michael Donald, who was on his way to the store. They lured him over to the car under the pretext of asking for directions. Once he got there, they pulled him into the car and drove him to a nearby county where they slit his neck, put out cigarettes in his face, and beat him with a tree limb. Then they took him back to Mobile County and strung him up in a tree across from the house where they lived. It took police two years to make a connection between this black body swinging in a tree and this Klan home. Finally two members of the United Klans of America were convicted and sentenced: one to death, one to life in prison.

Mrs. Donald didn’t sit in on that first trial, the criminal trial. Her health had deteriorated as a result of the pain of the brutal murder of her son, and the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a civil suit on her behalf. I was asked to work with her; we felt strongly that she needed to be there. As a part of the preparation for the trial I had to go through all of the things she would hear about her son’s murder. What speaks profoundly to me, even right now, is that during that trial, Mrs. Donald kept her composure after she had to hear all these horrible things.

One of the people who testified was James ”Tiger” Knowles, the Klansman who was sentenced to life in prison. He had been fourteen when he joined the Klan. It's ironic how many of the people I met who were Klansmen or neo-Nazis often talked about these white supremacist groups as providing them with a sense of family and community. Even today I wonder why there weren’t other groups offering a sense of community as an alternative to the white supremacist movement.

James “Tiger” Knowles, who had already been in prison for a couple of years, had had ample opportunity to think about what he had done. He had decided to testify on behalf of Mrs. Donald. During one point in the trial, Knowles got down from the stand and confessed it was he who had put his foot on Michael’s neck in order to tighten the noose. Afterwards he turned to Mrs. Donald and said, “I know I don’t have the right to ask this of you, but I hope one day you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.”

And Mrs. Donald didn’t miss a beat. She said, “Son, I forgave you a long time ago.” It was phenomenal.

After the civil suit was over, Mrs. Donald won a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America. It put that Klan group out of business, basically.

After the civil suit was completed, I was asked by Morris Dees, who headed the Southern Poverty Law Center, to go back to Mobile and ask Mrs. Donald if she would write a letter to the governor to ask him not to execute Henry Francis Hays. Henry Francis Hays was the other Klansman who had been convicted and sentenced for Michael's murder. He had been sentenced to death.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a history of working on capital cases. I was already opposed to the death penalty and was working actively against it in Alabama. But I had some problems with this particular request. One of the problems I had was that at that time, there were about ninety people on Alabama’s death row. Henry Francis Hays was the only person sentenced to Alabama’s death row because he killed a black person. But you didn’t say no to Morris Dees! So I went to Mobile and I said to Mrs. Donald, “How do you feel about the death penalty?”

And she said, “I’m opposed to it.”

And I was shocked, although I don’t know why. I said, “Well, if anybody has the right to be in favor of it, you certainly do.”

She said, “I never want another mother to experience the agony that I experienced in losing a child.”

For me, that’s what compassion is about. It’s not wanting to inflict the kind of suffering you have experienced on anyone else.

When I talk about the experience of working with Mrs. Donald, people often say, “She’s a saint.” But I also work with Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. We’ve all lost loved ones to murder. We’re all opposed to the death penalty. So people call us all either saints...or crazy. That's partly because they can’t imagine that ordinary people could do extraordinary things. But it really is about ordinary people.

A lot of my friends in Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation have talked about the need to be able to sit down with the perpetrator and ask: “Why did you do this?” Or, “What did my loved one do to you to evoke such anger or rage?” But because of our legal system, we don't get a chance to do that.

The father of one of my friends was murdered. In the same attack, she herself was brutally beaten. At one point she went to the prison intending to visit the person who was the perpetrator. Prison officials wouldn’t let her in. When she asked why, they said, “Well, you just want to be able to say that, yes, this was a horrible thing, but I don’t want to see you die!” At another point she was asked to testify in the man's case. Officials told her, “You can’t testify.” Finally they allowed her do so on condition that she wouldn’t testify about her anti-death-penalty position. And so when she was questioned about what she did for a living, she answered, “Well, I do hair and I’m an anti-death-penalty activist.”

Victim family members shouldn’t have to manipulate the criminal justice system or legal processes in order to express their opinions. Yet we don’t have very good imaginations about what could be different about our present legal/criminal justice system. We continue to use practices and systems that denigrate people. And with victims, there is a whole hierarchy as to who really is a victim.

I want to add an addendum to the story about Mrs. Donald. Henry Francis Hayes had been sentenced to death for Michael Donald’s murder. Henry’s father, Benny Hays, was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who had actually encouraged Henry, James “Tiger” Knowles, and other Klansmen to be involved in that murder. During an anti-death-penalty meeting in Mobile (after the successful civil suit against the United Klans of America), Grand Dragon Benny Hays walked into the room. He turned to the folks there, which included Sister Helen Prejean, family members of death row inmates, black and white abolitionists, and said “I’m here because my son’s on death row.” And we welcomed him into the circle, where we joined hands and sang. One of the people who went with me, a black woman, stood there holding Benny Hays’ hand.

Afterwards, when we left, we laughed and said, “This is one of the funniest things!” Except that it wasn’t. It was really very powerful.

And it was remarkable that the very people Benny Hays had reviled were the ones that he needed in the end.

As I have gone on to other experiences with people and communities, I have continued to see relationships develop out of some of the most tragic situations. None of us know where we’re going to be at any time on this journey. We don’t know whom we are going to need. It’s important to keep welcoming people into the circle, into the community.

Pat Clark was executive director of Fellowship of Reconciliation when she wrote this.
Article was in May/June 2004 Fellowship of Reconciliation, a periodical

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