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Friday, October 3, 2008

‘Dead Man Walking’ author speaks at UNCP justice forum

Sister Mary Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, teacher, author and death penalty opponent, spoke on September 22 at the 1st Annual Social Justice Symposium at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Mary Helen Prejean

Mary Helen Prejean

Black Line

To an audience of nearly 300, Sister Helen described her journey from a life of privilege to social activist.

“In 1982, I was working in the housing projects of New Orleans and someone asked me if I would be a pen pal to someone on death row,” Sister Helen said. “At that time, nobody was being killed on death row. I said yes.

“He wrote back,” she said.

That began a correspondence with convicted murderer Doby Gillis Williams, a young black man “with an IQ of 65.” Williams was put to death with Sister Helen looking on, and she wrote “Dead Man Walking” about the experience.

As a nun, Sister Helen was familiar with the idea of charity, but religious studies took her to another place.

“Here’s what changed my life,” she said. “Jesus called us to justice. What Jesus did was to inaugurate a new kind of community where all of us are welcome.”

When the vast majority of persons executed in America are minorities and 80 percent of those executed are in 10 Southern states with historically large African American populations, “Lady Justice,” she said is not blind-folded, but blind.

Sister Helen’s crusade fleshed out further when she became involved with a particularly sad murder in Louisiana. She had been counseling two convicted murders when she was confronted by the father of one of the victims.

“He said, ‘all this time you’ve been visiting these two boys, and you haven’t seen me once,’” he said. “What he said was they may have killed his son, but he wasn’t going to let them kill him with hatred.”

Sister Helen expanded her mission to families of victims, some of whom have asked the state not to kill in their name.

“An eye for an eye?” she asked. “What does that do for us? What does that do for victim’s families or the mother of a man who is executed?”

Sister Helen asked her audience to join her in a campaign for social justice.

“You can’t say you’re going to work on justice this semester and take a break next semester,” she said. “I’ve been working on this issue for 20 years, and I’m on fire.”

Dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, Sister Helen delivered an animated 60-minute lesson with a decidedly Louisiana accent. She praised the mission of UNCP to educate many first generation college students.

“I love this University because this is where the plow hits the ground,” she said. “You are going to make a seismic shift in your years here. This is a real University.”

The Social Justice Symposium continued with afternoon sessions on a variety of issues including American Indians and social justice, community and online organizing.

The symposium was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural and Minority Affairs. For more information, please call, 910.521.6508.

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