In the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” writer Lin-Manuel Miranda poses the question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
If it were up to Scarsdale High School senior Scott Goldban and longtime art teacher Beth Colleary, everyone on death row would live, while the estimated 10% who were wrongly accused would be exonerated and be able to tell their own story.
Like Anthony Ray Hinton.
As the keynote event of an interdisciplinary collaboration at the high school, which is part of a larger ongoing discussion on race in and out of the classrooms, Goldban, founder of the Scarsdale Innocence Club, and Colleary, an educator for 24 years, are proud to help present Hinton, who in 2015 was exonerated of murder in Birmingham, Alabama, after serving 30 years in prison. Hinton will speak to and answer questions over two Zoom sessions Tuesday, Feb. 9.
As part of a special high school schedule, grades 9-12 will log on to see Hinton in the afternoon, while the community is invited to a free event in the evening sponsored by The Scarsdale Interdependence Institute, Scarsdale Teachers Institute, Scarsdale PTC, SMS PTA, SHS PTA and the Scarsdale Adult School in conjunction with the Scarsdale Innocence Club.
Hinton is now the lead educator from the Equal Justice Initiative, whose founding lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, got Hinton’s conviction overturned.
Hinton’s appearance will be the culmination of the latest diversity, equity and inclusion undertaking, which included all high school students watching the Stevenson-inspired 2019 Michael B. Jordan/Jamie Foxx film “Just Mercy,” which features footage of the real Stevenson and Hinton leaving the prison together after Hinton’s release, in English classes organized by department chair Karine Schaefer; Colleary’s social justice teachings in arts, which includes the photography of lynchings; and English and social studies discussions and use of Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” and Hinton’s book “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row,” as educational materials. This typical celebration around Martin Luther King Jr. Day complements Global Citizenship Day, which takes place in the fall, and also features prominent racial justice speakers.
“It’s not just this one-off event where kids will sit and listen to somebody’s experience and never hear about it again,” Scarsdale Teachers Institute Director Ann Marie Nee said. “It’s something that we hope to continue the conversation about. For parents, non-high school teachers, middle schoolers and community members who also want to see the work the school is doing, the students are doing, can see it for themselves.”
Nee said the event organizers are “really excited” to have Hinton speak to the community firsthand about injustice. In addition to the film and his book on Oprah’s Book Club, there are lots of resources about his story to prepare students for the talk.
Hinton’s message is “universal,” Nee said.
“In the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, his appointed attorneys thought that they didn’t have enough money to find an expert to testify that the murder weapon wasn't the one that was used,” Goldban said. “They hired a civil engineer who had no experience and admitted that he couldn't operate the machinery necessary to test the innocence. As a result, the state convicted and sentenced him to death.”
Like anything else, Goldban believes education is key, so he’s definitely hoping to open eyes and find some new allies and perhaps expand the membership of the Innocence Club, which already has more than 100 students.
“I would just hope that once we raise awareness about this issue, someone out there will be just as inspired as I was, just as driven to make change and hope to connect with organizations and do their part,” he said. “This is an issue that really requires a lot of people to be passionate about and dedicate a significant amount of time because there’s so many people in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. It takes so many years to … jump over all of the problems that are necessary to get the case retried or get someone exonerated.”
As an eighth grader, Goldban took a Civil Rights tour in Alabama with Westchester Reform Temple, seeing many cultural monuments in the south, walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge (think “Selma”), and visiting the offices of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“I always used to think that everyone in prison is in there for a reason — you’re convicted, you’re put behind bars for a crime that you’ve committed — but unfortunately that was really my first time hearing that’s not the case,” Goldban said. “Estimates do vary, but the Equal Justice Initiative sometimes thinks that roughly 5%, of all people convicted in jail are actually innocent. There’s some crazy statistics about executions on Alabama’s death row. It’s like for every nine executed one is later found out to be innocent. These numbers are so alarming. Change is really necessary to happen quickly.”
Upon returning home from the trip, Goldban wanted to learn more. And he had the time, having recently suffered from a knee injury that ended his athletic career and seemed to put him on the outside of some social circles looking in. He felt “helpless” and “alone,” and while not on the same scale as someone who was wrongly accused or convicted of a crime, he came away with a feeling of solidarity. He connected with the Exoneration Initiative in New York City and, on the heels of that, as a sophomore, he founded the Innocence Club.
The club has hosted fundraisers and an array of speakers over the past couple of years, but Goldban believes the Hinton event will be the “most impressive.”
“One of the reasons I’m so excited for this event is because we are going to be able to reach so many different people,” Goldban said. “We worked with the school to make it part of the school day. It’s going to be a webinar that every single student and teacher will attend … I’m really excited to see how many people we can touch and … discuss some of the problems within the criminal justice system and the need for reform.”
In addition to the students furthering their DEI focus, the teachers continue to do the same through the Scarsdale Teachers Institute, which in February and March are holding Colleary-led classes Teaching Racial Justice: Equal Justice Initiative and Museums as Resources: Art and Social Justice. The classes will feature educators from the Equal Justice Initiative and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Nee secured a state grant for the Teaching Racial Justice course this weekend and teachers from all over the state can take the STI course for free. (There is typically a $75 fee.)
“This whole experience is coming out of a years-long faculty commitment to these issues and the fact that it's all coming together now is great because I think we have even more people involved,” Colleary said. “I think there's so often a feeling that we have so much to do with our curriculum. There's never enough time to follow up. And what's wonderful now is that everyone feels like we want to continue. We want this work to continue. And so, the relationships we're establishing now with Equal Justice Initiative and others will be ongoing.”
Though Colleary has been with the district 24 years, one of her first collaborations along these lines came in 2005 when Kathleen McGreal was teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” in her English classes and Colleary had discovered an exhibition of lynching postcards.
“We didn't even know the postcards existed, but literally you attended the lynching, you could purchase the postcard,” Colleary said. “It was legal to send them through the mail. I think through around 1910 … We used the postcards and the book with a theme of complicity, the white people who were there witnessing this and doing nothing.”
For Colleary, who has also collaborated closely with social studies teacher Heather Waters on her Peace-ing It Together course, it comes back to “non sibi,” the school’s “not for one’s self” motto. When you are privileged and have advantages that would avoid you getting pulled over for the color of your skin or you have the means to afford competent representation, she believes it is your duty to help others achieve the same.
“It’s that idea that if I'm quiet, then this is going to continue,” Colleary said. “This is all grassroots people in the streets and people are inspired around the world. It’s not leaders getting together at a table.”
Colleary shared with students the story of one of the defining moments of her young life in 1964, which sparked her interest in social justice. Growing up in Pelham, her backyard neighbors, the Schwerners, were close family friends. Colleary remembers her mom being on the phone saying, “Tell me Mickey isn’t in Mississippi. Tell me he isn’t there.”
Her mom was crying on the phone with Anne Schwerner, mother of Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, who along with James Charney and Andrew Goodman — one black, two white — were lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while registering black voters and investigating the burning of a church during what was dubbed Freedom Summer. The three were missing for 44 days.
It was years after the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning” came out before she could bring herself to watch the movie about one of her brother’s best friends.
“If you look at that within my lifetime, that was my first experience,” Colleary said. “And then you look now at what's happening in the political climate. There's still a lot to be done, heaven yes, but also look how far we've come.”
Witnessing the first black president — Barack Obama in 2009 — is something Colleary wasn’t sure she’d live to see. And to go beyond that and see black voters “whose ancestors came here in chains” be the ones to put control of the Senate in Democratic hands in Georgia last month is what gives her hope going forward, despite seeing the rise in white supremacists and insurrectionists. But that is being countered not only by black protestors at rallies such as Black Lives Matters, but often a majority of white faces standing in solidarity.
“So if you look at the historical arc here, this whole racial justice movement, the power of this is really changing our country in positive ways,” Colleary said.
For Global Citizenship Day in the fall of 2019, the Innocence Club hosted Brooklyn’s John Bunn, who was convicted of a 1991 murder and exonerated in 2018. That event and what Goldban was doing further energized Colleary and she became social studies teacher Andrew Morgan’s co-advisor for the Innocence Club. Shortly thereafter, the club, along with Colleary and McGreal, donated a bus full of books to Bunn’s effort to create a prison library at Rikers Island.
Colleary said activism is an important part of Scarsdale’s Global Citizenship Day. “It's one thing to hear the story, but it’s another thing to do something to try to help,” she said. “That’s part of what we’re hoping will come out of this.”
Goldban believes he is leaving the Innocence Club — and the high school’s racial justice focus — in good hands when he heads to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall to study political science, to see firsthand the research being done at the school on issues of criminal justice and to continue to grow his network by engaging in classes and connecting with local organizations.
The organizations Goldban has been connecting with aren’t just about raising awareness — they are hands-on every day in the thick of the fight, reviewing cases and working to right the wrongs.
“Right after that temple trip I just knew that I found my life’s calling and I really haven't looked back since,” Goldban said.
Colleary tells her students, “You’re next,” in whatever cause they seek to make significant change. And she continues to be inspired by the work of young people from Mickey Schwerner to Scott Goldban.
“This has blossomed into this wonderful event, but it all came from the kids,” she said.
Diversity, Unity and Justice
A Conversation with Anthony Ray Hinton
Tuesday, Feb. 9, from 7-8 p.m.
Teachers, students, parents and community members are welcome
Preregistration is required at http://bit.ly/3p2imAF
Sponsors: Scarsdale Interdependence Institute, Scarsdale Teachers Institute, Scarsdale PTC, SMS PTA, SHS PTA and the Scarsdale Adult School in conjunction with the Scarsdale Innocence Club
To order Hinton’s book, “The Sun Does Shine,” with some proceeds going to the Equal Justice Initiative, visit bronxriverbooks.com/book/9781250309471.