As we gratefully celebrate twenty years of Hope it is appropriate to remember our history and those who made it happen, our founding brothers. There is none better to guide us in this than Jesse Morrison, co-founder of our organization, and so I asked him to help us to remember and here are his notes:
“In May of 1989 Jesse Morrison and Wallace Norrell Thomas got together a committee of five, which included Johnny Harris, (Danny Siebert after Harris was transferred), James “Bo” Cochran and Joe Duncan. This committee worked for 4-5 months getting the structure together.
Around September we had the structure in place, along with the name of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, and began open membership, setting up study groups, classes and different committees.
Around December, the officers of the organizations held the first meeting on the visiting yard with potential members of outside board of advisers and supporters.
The very first initiative was Wallace and I writing two articles, From Alabama Death Row and Black America and the Death Penalty. We sent out over 300 copies to black churches, black colleges, black newspapers nationwide, death penalty organizations and friends and families.
As our membership grew, we expanded the committee, and had to replace some. The new members were Brian Baldwin, Gary Brown, Leroy White and Ward Gentry.
I asked Jesse to say a little something about our founding brothers and here it is:
Wallace Norrell Thomas, executed 1990:”the political and legal mind of the group. On death row, he was the constant voice for change in conditions as well as the legal system.”
Johnny Harris,” mentor/advisor, knew Alabama prison system officials and had outside contacts and support system but was transferred soon after the beginning.”
Bo Cochran, exonerated in 1997 and still supportive of phadp,”solid supporter who had the respect of all death row inmates.”
Joe Duncan “solid supporter, willing to take a stand against the system, eager to get involved.”
Danny Siebert, died in 2008, “knowledgeable about organizational structure and running a campaign. Got involved only at my request.”
Gary Brown, executed 2003,”was asked to come aboard to help recruit whites and Christian inmates. Proved to be a very hardworking and totally committed member.”
Brian Baldwin, executed in 1999, “my most valued co-worker; took on the job of building our newsletter; acted as my confidant and advisor on all the important decisions I had to make; brought a lot of outside members into the organization. Brian was very popular, fun-loving, outgoing but also had a quick, intelligent mind, which allowed him to not only grasp an issue but to see it from all sides.”
Jesse Morrison gave me the task to write about him. We have been close friends for the last ten years, ever since my dear friend Brian Baldwin’s execution. In recalling the birth of phadp he wrote: I was only doing what I thought was right and necessary at the time, and I was mad as hell. If ever there was an example of channeling anger into positive action, our organization was it. 1989 was the year of four executions, a record, which we are unfortunately likely to break this year.
In writing about Jesse I could talk about his natural charisma, his leadership qualities, his fighting spirit, but all of those would mean nothing if they were not about what was right and necessary. Jesse sees a problem and wants to address it for the sake of those around him. After his sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole, he tried to found the Lifer’s group, and when that was denied, start a NAACP chapter in the prison, all ways to bring hope and meaning to a place where there is little of either. It is the loss of the Department of Corrections that it denied permission for both.
Jesse is famous for his admonition to be the other voice. He lives that and is at his very best when he can inspire, motivate, work hard and bring people together for the common good. He wants to make a difference and he has in so many of our lives, even in the lives of some who do not know him because they came to death row after his re-sentencing.
I know I have repeatedly attempted to explain the spirit of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, which still endures now that we are 20 years old. When I read Bo what Jesse had written over the phone, there was silence and then I heard sobs and the words, we were family. Yes, you were and we still are and we thank our dear friend Jesse Morrison and all who were part of the beginning for this vision. We thank you for daring to dream a bold dream and for not counting the cost. We do not forget and we love you!
Jesse Morrison and Esther Brown