Campbell

Thank you so much for this award, and for this evening’s gathering. It is an honor, and deeply humbling, for us to be recognized alongside so many visionary advocates for justice, and to celebrate their work. What an inspiration!

In her 2011 speech to the graduates of the Certificate in Theological Studies program at Lee Arrendale State Prison, Kelly Gissendaner spoke these words, which today are for us:

“The theology program has shown me that hope is still alive and that, despite a gate or a guillotine hovering over my head, I still possess the ability to prove that I am human. … No matter the label attached to me, I have the capacity and the unstoppable desire to accomplish something positive and have a lasting impact.”

This award recognizes the enormous creativity and commitment of so many people — here in this room, across Georgia, and all over the world — who were part of the campaign to stop Kelly Gissendaner’s execution and to tell her remarkable story. So if you were one of the 92,000 people who signed a petition; if you wrote a letter or an op-ed, organized a press conference or came to a vigil, shared a video or joined Kelly in daily prayer, dropped banners over a highway overpass in the middle of the night, or took on one of the hundreds of small, behind-the-scenes tasks that were part of this campaign: Thank you. This award recognizes your fierce passion for justice and the power of our collective creativity in struggles for political and social transformation.

I have frequently pointed out in recent months that #KellyOnMyMind represented a new kind of organizing. We are different from many of the other groups being honored tonight — we are not an organization, we don’t have non-profit status or a permanent structure. We were a campaign, a network, a community organized around a hashtag and a set of common goals and commitments. But this description risks creating the impression that we emerged in a flash, out of thin air, thanks to the magic of the internet and social media, in a moment of shock and urgency when Kelly’s first appeal for clemency was denied, almost a year ago. This could not be further from the truth.

This award also recognizes the long-standing institutional commitments and relationships that made our efforts possible. For nearly 20 years, Candler students have been serving as student chaplains in Georgia correctional facilities, alongside another Candler graduate, Chaplain Susan Bishop; and since 2009, Candler students, PhD students in the Laney Graduate School, and students from the other seminaries in the Atlanta area have been teaching in the theology certificate program of which Kelly was a graduate.

Through these long-standing and carefully nurtured institutional partnerships, a whole generation of students, faculty, and alumni have developed personal relationships with women in prison, and have come to understand something about these women’s lives as well as the complex conditions and systems that lead to incarceration. We have experienced, firsthand, the transformative potential of teaching and learning behind bars. There can be no doubt that these relationships and institutional commitments made our work, as #KellyOnMyMind, possible. By the same token, these relationships and partnerships have profoundly shaped our institutions, as well.

Citing the University’s Methodist heritage, Emory’s mission statement emphasizes an understanding of education as a moral force and of universities as institutions with a binding obligation to serve the common good and human flourishing. In accepting this award today, we celebrate the way that these commitments, and the fruits of these commitments, are made concrete and visible in our work.

Finally, I want to end by saying this:

We stand at a moment of great urgency. Last year, Georgia was responsible — shockingly — for one-fifth of all the executions in the United States. Brandon Jones, who at 72 is the oldest man on Georgia’s death row, is scheduled to be killed on February 2. The State of Georgia will kill him in our name. And we expect an additional 6 executions to be scheduled in the coming months. The stakes are very high.

Elected officials of both parties have led efforts to end capital punishment in 24 other states. It is time for Georgia to join them.

A 2015 vigil in Cannon Chapel for Gissendaner.

So contact your state legislators, and tell them that you support an end to the death penalty, and an end to criminal justice practices that target, disenfranchise, marginalize and criminalize people of color and the the poor.

Specifically: In this legislative session, Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities are asking the Georgia legislature to change the standard of proof required to meet the legal standard of intellectual disability, in order to protect vulnerable people from wrongful execution. They will also take up Governor Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform package, which among other things, increases resources for educational and vocational programs in prisons.

Kelly herself hoped that if she died at the hands of the state, her execution would be the last carried out in Georgia. She believed that God was working through her life, and that this work was not yet done. She hoped that her story and the attention it received would make a difference for the men still living on Georgia’s death row.

We move forward in that same audacious hope.