A peacemaker is how people described Delbert Tibbs.
On November 23, 2013, the death penalty abolition movement lost a beloved family member and friend when Delbert, 74, passed away in his home in Chicago.
Delbert Tibbs was many things. He was a sage, a poet, a leader and the nicest person you could ever meet, with an intellect, a spirit and a commitment that inspired all of us. It was an honor to know this peacemaker, and to learn from him.
A man of peace, Delbert was a death row survivor who had experienced a great deal of violence perpetrated against him. A former seminary student, Delbert was traveling around the country and was in Florida in February 1974 when the state police stopped him.
Police questioned him about the rape of Cynthia Nadeau, 16, and the murder of her hitchhiking companion, Terry Millroy, 27, in Fort Myers. According to Nadeau, the offender was 5-foot-6, dark skinned and with a large afro. Meanwhile, Delbert was 6-foot-3, light complexioned and with short-cropped hair. So, Delbert was released. Yet, after viewing some photos, Nadeau changed her description and said Delbert Tibbs was actually the killer and rapist. A warrant was issued, Delbert was arrested in Mississippi and was extradited to Florida.
An all-white jury found Delbert guilty in less than two days. That was Southern justice. The victims were white, the defendant black. Since Florida had a moratorium on the death penalty, the judge told Delbert “if the moratorium continues, you will serve consecutive life sentences. If it doesn’t, you’ll be sent to death row.” And Delbert was sent to death row.
It turns out that the jailhouse informant who claimed Tibbs had admitted to the crime had provided his fraudulent testimony to the prosecution in the hopes of leniency for a rape charge, for which he was facing a life sentence. This came to light after trial. Meanwhile, Delbert received a broad base of community support, including celebrities such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. In 1976, the Florida Supreme Court threw out his conviction, and in 1977 Delbert Tibbs was a free man. The prosecutor’s office finally dropped the case against him in 1982, declaring the case was “tainted from the beginning and the investigators knew it.”
Since those days, Delbert has been fighting against the death penalty, against injustice, and for the rights of the poor and the oppressed, of victims of state-sanctioned violence. I’ve known him as a staff member of Witness to Innocence, the national organization of death row survivors and their loved ones. How so much potency was contained in a man with such a pacifist soul is what made Delbert a standard bearer.
What struck me about Delbert is that he was not one to complain, even when he was visibly weak and in pain. After speaking with him, as I did two days before he left us, I always learned something. And his Zen-like calm never failed to inspire me to do better, to be better. Few people have a depth of knowledge, of spiritual maturity, or commitment to racial justice as this survivor. He wrote in his poetry about Shaka Sankofa (Gary Lee Graham), Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis, all innocent black men who were killed, taken from us before their time. In a poem to executed death row prisoner Troy Davis, this exonerated death row survivor said this to another wrongfully convicted black man who was killed by the state of Georgia amid a climate of racism:
I personally believe you were innocent as charged
I feel you were too real to have lied all these years
and even laying on that death gurney
yet you proclaimed your innocence and had friendly
Words to say to the family of the man that they took your life for.
Again, I feel that your life that was sacrificed
Will be a loud call to all who stand for fairness and justice.
I know that your death will move millions more to say No!
as they did for you.
You showed the world how a man could die with dignity and calmness
at the hands of people who seem to know neither.
you were brave and beautiful, My Brother, and you gave us the courage to fight on until that better day.
During times of strife, conflict and violence, we turn to the Delbert Tibbses of our world to lead us down a path towards justice and righteousness. They know that winning the war we are fighting will not come through guns or drones, but rather with the forcefulness of our ideas, and the strength of our convictions. And when the Delberts are no longer with us physically, remaining with us only in spirit, we must learn from the example they set for us and continue as they would have us do it. Brother
Delbert, we miss you.
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