Former death row prisoner Moreese Bickham has died at the age of 98. In 1958, Bickham, an African American, was sentenced to death for shooting and killing two police officers in Mandeville, Louisiana, even though Bickham said the officers were Klansmen who had come to kill him and shot him on the front porch of his own home. Multiple other people in the community also said the officers worked with the Ku Klux Klan, which was a common practice in small Southern towns. Bickham served 37 years at Angola State Penitentiary, in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. He won seven stays of execution, but Louisiana’s governors repeatedly denied him clemency until, under enormous pressure, he was finally released in 1996. Days after he was released, he traveled to New York, where he was interviewed on WBAI’s “Wake-Up Call” by Amy Goodman, Bernard White, Gil Noble and others. “Wake-Up Call” had closely followed Bickham’s case and helped give it national attention.
GIL NOBLE: What Dr. King was saying was making it very, very difficult for the United States to continue its courtship of many of the mineral resources of countries around the world of color, because they were saying to those suitors, “How can you say you love us so much when you’re treating our kids and kin so badly back in your own country?” So, this thing that came out of the United States—and one of the captains, of course, is Dr. King—had larger implications than we realized at the time. And I think we might do well to become students of history. I think also what he aroused in students and what students got from that and took and went with, I think that young people today ought to look at those students of yesterday and think a little bit about how things have come to pass and how—what has happened—
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah.
GIL NOBLE: —to change their demeanor so drastically, their whole ethos, their whole—
BERNARD WHITE: The focus of the culture, yeah.
GIL NOBLE: —values system—yes. All of that needs to be re-examined, without comment from us elders. Just let young people answer some of those questions—pose them and answer them themselves.
BERNARD WHITE: You know, one of the places where King left off was the Poor People’s Campaign, the poor peoples, bringing poor people to Washington, D.C., to surround the Capitol and just to stay there until the Congress began to move. You know, that’s not talked about much, but can you imagine that?
GIL NOBLE: Oh, they were going to immobilize the city.
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah.
GIL NOBLE: They were going to tie up the airports. They were going to tie up all traffic. All business in the nation’s capital was going to cease, until th government really sat down and addressed the business of poor people, which was not just people of color.
BERNARD WHITE: Right. Not a bad idea.
GIL NOBLE: Not a bad idea still.
BERNARD WHITE: Exactly. Of course, you need people to articulate that and begin to believe that that’s something that should be done. But certainly, the focus of the Congress has been to take away most of the gains that King and other individuals had died fighting for.
GIL NOBLE: Well, you know, that which ails this country is old, old, old. And it’s going to take wave after wave of warriors like Dr. King to correct it. It’s a long time in developing the evil that has soaked up this country, and it’s going to take a long time to eradicate it. To think that one uprising of 10 years’ duration was going to eliminate and correct a centuries-old institution, I think, is ill-advised. I think it’ll take a long, long time. And Dr. King will have to come back.
AMY GOODMAN: You even have the phenomenon today, in Congress, quoting Martin Luther King. I think I’ve heard more quotes of Martin Luther King in the last few months. And just a few days ago, when the new Louisiana governor, who beat out Cleo Fields, which would have been quite something to have him as governor of Louisiana, though he is a congressman—what’s one of his first acts? His first act was to abolish all affirmative action programs and to once more, I think, to reaffirm or to institute the Martin Luther King holiday. And he said Martin Luther King would have been against affirmative action. This is the new Republican governor of Louisiana.
GIL NOBLE: Well, of course he would know. Of course he’d know.
BERNARD WHITE: Is it what Marvin Gaye said, “Makes you want to holler, throw up both your hands”?
GIL NOBLE: Yeah.
BERNARD WHITE: Some of the things these guys are saying. Did you—just to change the subject a little bit, you know, one of the things that we’ve been doing at this radio station is trying to bring about some change, trying to stay in the legacy of Dr. King, particularly with the morning program, trying to make it more action-oriented, not just talking about things, but seeing if we can get people to move things forward. And we’ve been pretty successful. Our listeners have been pretty successful in trying to make things happen. Did you happen to hear at all about an individual, Moreese Bickham, at all?
GIL NOBLE: I, just in passing, heard. And all praises are due to the extraordinary efforts—
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah.
GIL NOBLE: —that this radio station engaged in to bring about that man’s release. I think it’s absolutely magnificent. My hat’s off to you.
BERNARD WHITE: Oh, and mine to the listeners, who are the ones. I tried to make a whole lot of phone calls, but it seems that they were the ones that made the difference.
GIL NOBLE: And to have this man come in here today—
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah.
GIL NOBLE: —of all days, I mean, that’s just—that’s just wonderful. What time is he due here?
BERNARD WHITE: I think he’s around here somewhere.
GIL NOBLE: He’s in the building?
BERNARD WHITE: He’s in the building.
GIL NOBLE: Oh, my god!
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah.
[Moreese Bickham being greeted in the hallway]
BERNARD WHITE: That this radio station that you listen to, this little place up on 35th Street, was able to reach down into Louisiana and kind of, you know, knock on the governor’s door and say, “Hey, we’d like for you to behave in this manner,” and we were able to effectuate some change in the life of at least one person—we know it’s not everybody, and we know that there are probably a bunch of folks down in the South, as well as in the North, similarly situated, thrown into jail on trumped-up charges and—but we were able to do something for one individual.
GIL NOBLE: Can I go back to Dr. King for just a minute? I want to ask you a question.
BERNARD WHITE: All right.
GIL NOBLE: What did Dr. King—what impact did he have on you that prompted you some 15 years ago to begin these annual tributes to his memory?
BERNARD WHITE: Excuse me. Well, you know, I remember the day that he was killed.
GIL NOBLE: Yeah.
BERNARD WHITE: And I was working down on Wall Street then, and I was—I came down into the subway. And this woman was at the toll booth, and, you know, word had just gotten around that King was shot and that he was killed. And this woman said that “Well, I sure hope he was killed by a black person.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Well, if it was a white person, there’s going to be a riot, and they’re going to tear up the city.” And I was just kind of numb by the whole thing and further numbed by that, and riding home on the subway, and, you know, everybody was quiet, and people, you know, kind of looking at everybody a little strange. But it was very quiet on the subway. And when I got here, I always felt that in listening to radio, that you—that you could really tell the story of someone. And I never thought that the King story was told. And I thought that there was enough music and enough of his speeches to tell another story, other than what was being given at that particular time about just the dreamer. And I ran into the speech called “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” And I listened to that speech over, and I can almost recite the whole thing. But I said, “People got to—people got to know this about this guy, and we’ve got to do something to make that the information—that, you know, we’re in control of the information about the people that we hold dear.” So, I’ve been attempting to find as many different kind of speeches to tell the other story—for instance, like the Poor People’s Campaign. Excellent idea.
[Moreese Bickham being greeted in the hallway]
AMY GOODMAN: Look who’s here!
BERNARD WHITE: Great! Great!
GIL NOBLE: My goodness. Happy to meet you.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Pleased to meet you all. Glad to meet you. I thank all of you for everything.
BERNARD WHITE: Moreese Bickham, how are you?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Just fine, fine. I’m great. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bernard.
BERNARD WHITE: All right.
MOREESE BICKHAM: I believe you all have heard this voice before.
BERNARD WHITE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Oh.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is Gil Noble.
GIL NOBLE: How are you, my brother?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Pretty great. [inaudible] I’ve had better days, but I ain’t going to worry about it.
GIL NOBLE: I hear you’ve had worser days, too.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Yeah, but they was just days. But I didn’t intend to be a legend. Since I am, I don’t think I deserve it.
BERNARD WHITE: So the voice that you’re hearing is that of Moreese Bickham, someone that we’ve been talking about for quite some time. You know, Moreese, if you put on those headphones, I got something that you might—might like.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, yeah. We did promise you something—
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —that day in Mississippi, when you got out of Angola.
BERNARD WHITE: Let’s see.
MOREESE BICKHAM: That’s the record I heard the other day and said I wanted. Oh, yeah. I wish—I wish everybody could hear this.
BERNARD WHITE: Wow.
AMY GOODMAN: Everyone’s listening.
BERNARD WHITE: There’s a quite a few people listening right now.
[listening to Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”]
BERNARD WHITE: OK, everybody, dry your eyes.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Yeah.
BERNARD WHITE: Dry your eyes.
MOREESE BICKHAM: I know how it feels now to be free. When I was flying over the West Coast going to Oakland, I looked down, and I seen all them little lights, looked like stars up in heaven. I said I’ve always been looking up and see the stars. I know heaven is up that way. But, Lord, these look like stars down there. Is that heaven down there? And some say it can be. You know, a content mind and a happy soul, a heart that you know is pure and God taking care of you is heaven on Earth. It’s heaven on Earth. To be among you friends that helped me see this day is a miracle. But did you know? I thank every one of you from the bottom of my heart and give God the glory, because God is a wonderful god. He never failed. He told me by the third night I got in the struggle that I was going to get out and go to California. They tried to send me to Mandeville, but I said, “No, I’m going to California.” And I asked the lord all of the time, after my mother died, “Let me go and walk around her grave.” And that’s what I did, with him right there with me. He’ll tell you. And ain’t nobody said nothing.
GIL NOBLE: Had you always been a god-fearing man?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Ever since—
GIL NOBLE: Even before this thing happened?
MOREESE BICKHAM: I was shot through the heart with navel string shot off, and I asked the lord, I said, “Lord, I know you’re good, God, and you made one promise: Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days be long in the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.” I said I might have not been an obedient child, but I tried. And said, for that reason, allow me to have a few more days. And he did. From that day—I had a good walk with God, but I never had a personal relationship with him until I was laying at the point of death with a bullet shot top of my heart all with. He showed me that I was going to get up. In 48 days, I’m up and working. When I got shot in '52, I asked the lord, I said, if it ever be anything else like this, give me something to shoot; let the other man die, not me. Six years from that day, I was reminded of those words, and I got into it that time, and I have served 37 years for it. I could at least say to the lord, “Don't let this happen anymore.” And it wouldn’t happen. But I was a person that didn’t see but one way, and that was my way. It wasn’t God’s way. And I’ve told many ministers and many people that there’s something hidden in my head told me to do what I did. And they say, “Oh, no, the lord ain’t never told you.” I said, well, you—I know there wasn’t no spirit in the world tell me to do something and, when it’s over, said everything going to be all right, and I live through seven stays of execution, all the heart attacks and operations I had, and come out in good enough health to be flying all over the world. Nobody can tell me God wasn’t on my side. And as long as he’s holding my hand, I’m going to hold his. Wherever I go, I remember one thing: God gave me a second chance—third chance, for when I got shot, that was the second letter. And when I went in this prison, that was the third letter. And I read the third one perfect, over and over, from the bottom to the top and down. Rest of them, I read them and laid them aside. But I read that one. He took the heart out of me and put the one enemy he wanted, and I’ve been living ever since.
GIL NOBLE: You know, this radio station has made it a long crusade in behalf of many people who are in prison unjustly. Many of them are viewed as what we call political prisoners. Do you have a sense that there are a lot of people in prison who shouldn’t be there?
MOREESE BICKHAM: I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know. I’ve been in—when I went in prison at Angola, it was 2,600 men there in about three camps. When I left Angola, there’s 5,200-something, about 5,200 people there in about six camps. I’d say 85 percent of them copped out because the DA told them they’re going to get something more than they’re going to get. The other was 10 percent was tried in kangaroo court. And about 5 percent of them were really guilty. Now, guilt don’t say they done it and don’t say they didn’t do it. See, there’s a cause to everything. In my case, I can’t see the cause. I can’t see the reason. I asked the lord many times why it happened to me. I treat every man like I thought I ought to when treating me. I didn’t force myself on nobody. But my lawyer said that I was living too good for these people in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was living 15 years ahead of my time. And therefore, these people want to get me out of the way. And the other thing, no doubt, that I didn’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Folks, you’re listing to Moreese Bickham. In Angola, he’s known as “Pop.” And for those of you who have never heard his story before, in the summer of 1958, two white sheriff’s deputies in the Deep South, in Louisiana, came to his home in the middle of the night, wearing pajamas, I believe, and they shot him. And he loaded his rifle, and he shot back. He was accused and convicted of first-degree murder in a night trial where people who witnessed what had happened were afraid to come forward, because he lived in Klan country, and he was a black man in a white part of town, in Mandeville, Louisiana. That was in 1958. For the next 38 years, he lived at Angola prison in Louisiana—Angola named for the place in Africa, Angola, where the slaves in that area were from. And as you speak, Moreese, I’m thinking you’ve been in jail for 38 years, and that’s how old I am. You’ve been in jail for my entire lifetime.
GIL NOBLE: Jesus.
AMY GOODMAN: And here you are today, and you are speaking hope. You’re speaking about how you look forward to your life. And it is a lesson to us all. What was hardest about being in prison?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Knowing that you was in there, looking and hoping not to get in to start with. And then, after being in there to start with, it took so long for justice to play its part. That’s what—that’s the killing part. Twenty or 25 years or maybe—yeah, say, at least 20 or 25 years, something should change. But you go getting up into 30 or 39 to 40—and I was 41 years old at the time, and now I’m 78. But—
GIL NOBLE: Was most of the time in prison—were you confined to a cell alone, or did you share your cell with somebody?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Well, the 14 years and 10 months that I was on death row—most of it, not all of it, because two years or so I was in another institution for insane people, you understand? That’s the only way we could get by the case with the kind—that time they had a law, if a man was insane, you couldn’t execute him. So, a great deal of it, got the United States Supreme Court to hold up that law for six years. And after they held it up for six years, the next three years they knocked it down, said it was unconstitutional. That’s when we went back and got a life sentence.
GIL NOBLE: No, what I was getting at is, how did you keep your sanity?
MOREESE BICKHAM: They say I can’t say that I kept my sanity, because I asked the lord whatever it took, or however it took, for me to go through this, equip me with it. And a lot of—and a lot of my learnings in the Bible and other books studied and one thing and another, the lawyer moved it from me during that period, because I’m a man like this right here. You’re saying something about the book and lord, and it’s not right, and I’m going to speak up. But somehow or another, he sealed my mouth, you know? I did that for a couple of years, almost couple of years. And then, when I did come out, [inaudible] they knocked down the death penalty.
BERNARD WHITE: There was a period there where I know David Isay was talking about how they—men just lost all hope, began to just run through the—through the prison and tried to escape. What had happened at that time?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Nearing there, that was like me when I got locked up—when I got locked up, I knew that I was doomed, because I knew the situation. And I was willing to die anywhere, you understand? When you know you done crossed over the line and you can’t get back, there’s nothing for you to do but just keep pressing on following. But as I pressed on, the lord showed me that “I was with you when this happened, didn’t give you a pass when it was happening.” Therefore, I look around myself and then I say, “I’m in a bad situation, but I got to make the best out of it I can.” And due the heavenly lord, I got favors from people in authority, just like these men here come to my rescue and got me out. But if I had to then, like some people, had to bear the world on my shoulders and then try to stand up on it, he would have buried me right on down under it and had me committing suicide. It takes a strong person to stand up on something. He can’t just go out there on his own and stand up there. You’ve got to have the power of God with you to make it in a place like that.
When I went there, they was getting killed two and three a week. I moved to another camp set up with a mission in it, and walked under knives and clubs, and got people to go to church. I mean, reach and get this, and then have a stand that and all with it, and tell this one, “Come on, let’s go to church.” But I always said, “Go get somebody to come to church. There ain’t but three or four of us here.” And when I know, I’m between a fight, looked like. But when the fight ended with me, I took both fellows to church. And one of them rode all over this country driving a freight truck [inaudible]. He would send me a card where he’s stopping. And he wasn’t no black man. He’s white. That’s what God wanted doing. I didn’t have to have nobody in church, but looked around and said, “Let me go get somebody.” He sent me to stop that fight, not to bring them to church, and after I stopped it, they didn’t know where for them to go but to church.
BERNARD WHITE: When you—I mean, you were in that community for 38 years, and you probably made a lot of friendships.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Oh, ask the chairman man over there how I left them all, how—oh, he was—not only him. Who else? Karen, you was there, wasn’t you? She’s not in here, I don’t believe. There she is. You was there when I left, wasn’t you?
BERNARD WHITE: How was it when you left?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Oh, it was—I told my grandson last night, when we’d been talking, about 4:00 this morning. I said, “If only my friends in Angola could see me now. Here I am. They think I’m in Oakland. I’m here in New York. If they could only see me now.” Seriously, because it’s all the friends that I know and had, except you all out here trying to help me. And we’ve come to be very close. They gave me a party last Saturday before I left, in the chapel. Outside, people brought the food and everything. We had a—
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve lived this as much as Moreese. I mean, you’ve lived this maybe on the other side of the bars, but you’ve been feeling the same pain. Vivian, how old were you in 1958?
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Twenty years old.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember those days in Mandeville?
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the trial like? And what did you think at the time? Did you think that—
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: I was—I was at a lynching. Felt like I was at a lynching. I look back at it. That’s all it was. People had their Thermos bottles and hot tea and soup, and little kids, little kids on their hips. And it went into the dark time, went into the nighttime. I could have swore it was going to be a lynching then, because they was preparing for it. But then, I was young, 20 years old. So my father is—wasn’t going to see him anymore, from that day. And the trial was over; they went in and found him guilty. And what I couldn’t understand was, I can look back, and it was all white people.
GIL NOBLE: All-white jury?
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: All-white jury, all white people. It was—it was like I went through that 30 years like a person in a dream. I woke up Thursday last week. And my dad asked me when he came home—I was sitting over in the corner real quiet, and he asked me, “What’s the matter, baby?” I told him, “Nothing.” He said, “But there’s something wrong. What is it?” And I told him, “I’m into reality right now. Before that, it was—I was still dreaming. I was still in a dream.” I had a thought, condition of thought for 30 years that he was in prison, where the alligators was, the snakes, rattlesnakes, horseback soldiers, and he wasn’t going to get out of there. But then I got this call from New York. And it’s like I made an automatic switch in my mind. I teach our thought process in my work, and it changed about three years ago. You know, we create our own reality with our own thinking, our own thoughts. And my reality changed about three years ago. I said, “If those people in New York can work this hard and then went down there to really see what’s going on in the Deep South; I’m in California, I could put my part in the puzzle.” So I got 350 signatures, and I played my part in it, so that my mind started—I started my—I started thinking different about him getting out. But for a long time, I didn’t have that thought at all. It didn’t even cross my mind. I thought he would just be there and be buried there like everybody else, because everybody went there, they would be buried, they would never come out.
BERNARD WHITE: Well, when did you get the feeling that, you know, there was a good chance that he would be getting out?
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Well, I got—when Mike and them got in touch with me from New York.
BERNARD WHITE: From that very moment, huh?
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Yeah, from that very moment. I can remember. It’s like this man on the other end of the phone talking to me, but, see, I’m still in this dream, I’m still in this nightmare from 1958. And I’m getting this call, and I’m still in this dream. It’s like that’s somebody that’s going to do something. He don’t know me. I don’t know him. But he’s got another different way he’s looking at this, and I need to start looking at it this way, too. And I started thinking to myself, “He can do it. I believe he can. It can be done. It’s time. It’s been a long time. I’m the mother of nine kids. My father—my oldest child is 36. So I didn’t even have a child at that time. He’s 36 years old. He has never seen his grandfather’s foot on the ground. He’s got 24 great-grandkids. They’ve never seen him either. I just barely had him for 20 years myself. And I can understand what the other family was going through, and I know they in a dream, just like a nightmare. But I’m awake, after I caught him in the airport, patted him. He said, “It’s me.” So I said [inaudible]. I still was like I was in a dream. And it’s all right. But we have to have faith in God and look at this system a little bit more better, look at this system and really teach our kids to kind of be aware of where they at.
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah, that’s true.
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Take care of their self. Let’s take care of each other.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you learn about your grandfather, Moreese Bickham?
WILLIAM R. JEFFERSON: Well, when I first found out about my grandfather, I think I might have been six, seven, maybe eight years old. But my mother had been taking me to Angola to visit him, you know, since I was a baby. And I remember we went to visit him one day, and we were sitting there talking, and he was telling me a little bit about what had happened, you know? And he told me that he was on—you know, that he was on death row. But at that age, I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of what death row was. You know, I thought that what he was telling me at that time was that he was just going to be in the penitentiary for the rest of his life. And I remember at the age of seven or eight, that he told me, he said, “I wish to God that it had never happened,” you know? But he said he found himself in a position to where he felt that he didn’t have any other choice.
And he told me that, he said—he told me, he said, “Son,” he said, “I want you to be very careful of the company that you keep, you know.” And like I said, at that age, you know, seven, eight years old, a kid don’t really comprehend everything that he’s being told, but he can comprehend something. But as I began to get older, you know, around 12 or 13, 14 years old, I could start understanding and comprehending more of what he meant. And today, most of my friends that I have had—just a few of them still have never been to the penitentiary, but most of them are either dead or in prison. And I have never been convicted of a felony. I’m 36 years old. And I thank God that my granddaddy, or my grandfather, would—told me to be aware of the people that I associate with, that I care—you know, be careful of the people that you hang around, you know, because, as I was saying, they say birds of a feather flock together, you know? And I could have found myself—I could have easily been in prison myself, you know?
And when my mom told me that they was working on getting my grandfather out of the penitentiary, I kind of assumed what like—I kind of really just didn’t believe it, you know, I mean, because, like I say, when—he went in the penitentiary before I was even born. So, all—every time I saw him, it was in a penitentiary.
BERNARD WHITE: Seemed like that’s where he was supposed to be.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Right, right, until after I got older, and, like I said, I started comprehending what death row meant, you know? I started coming—”Wait a minute. In other words, they can come get my grandfather almost just about anytime and electrocute him.” And then that’s when I really started feeling really bad and sad, you know, because it—the times before that, I didn’t have no reason to really feel sad. But then I started feeling real bad. “Oh, man, you know, my granddaddy, they could execute him at any time.” But the day that my mom told me that they were working on getting my grandfather out of the penitentiary, you know, I just really didn’t—I really just didn’t believe it, you know. But in my heart, I had the greatest desire. It’s like, “God, can this be possible, you know?” And I was just saying to myself and thinking to myself, “Man, I hope that—I just hope this can become a reality. You know, I just hope this is real.”
And the day my grandfather set foot in my mom’s house, I was totally speechless. There was nothing that I could say or nothing. All I could do was just walk up to him and hug him. And my grandfather and me just stood there for a while, just hugging each other. We didn’t say anything to each other. We just hugged each other. You know? And I just thank God he’s home, you know? I thank God he’s home.
BERNARD WHITE: And I remember when you—when we spoke to you on the telephone, and we said something about you coming to New York, and you said, “I hope so.” I said, “Don’t worry, it’s going to happen.” I just had no idea that it would happen this soon.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Me, either. I was freed last Tuesday night, 12:01. And Wednesday at 10:00, I was in Oakland, done—been back to my birthplace and home. And I stayed there, and the first thing I knew, Saturday night, was that—I mean, Friday night, was that you’re due in New York City Sunday morning. Now wait a dog minute. I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast. So I come in, turn it around, and nobody’s getting ready. And lord help me, here I am, flying again. I think it’s because I was worried, my first jet flight, and said, “I like it.” [inaudible] He said, “You like that?” I said, “Yeah.” And here I am again.
BERNARD WHITE: “Let’s go,” right. You remember there was one caller that called up and said that she wanted you to take some hawthorn berries?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Yeah.
BERNARD WHITE: Yeah.
MOREESE BICKHAM: I never did know what she was saying.
BERNARD WHITE: Well, there she is. Maybe you could—
MOREESE BICKHAM: Oh, there she is. God bless you. Now, you be sure you explain that to me.
UNIDENTIFIED: Everyone calls berries differently. You know this doesn’t look anything like huckleberries. Now, see? I just want you to see what it looks like.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Yeah. [inaudible]
UNIDENTIFIED: No, you make a tea. You boil it and make a tea.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Oh, I’m a tea man.
UNIDENTIFIED: And it makes your heart [inaudible].
MOREESE BICKHAM: [inaudible] like a rock. God bless you. You know what?
UNIDENTIFIED: And like you can take it, just four more, this way, OK?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Yeah. You mean to tell me I see you and—man, who is you, boy?
AMY GOODMAN: We have a lot of little kids in the studio.
BERNARD WHITE: A lot of little kids. Ah, they brought a little T-shirt.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Man, oh, God bless you. Let me hug you again.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Wake-Up Call, folks, all of our wake-up calls on this morning. This morning, Moreese and his daughter, Vivian Jefferson, were on The Today Show. How was it, by the way, Moreese?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Oh, well, everybody say it was great. I got yet to see it.
AMY GOODMAN: We got to see it here. We were watching it on a very small black-and-white TV. But in addition, people here from other networks that are videoing, videoing Moreese now that he is free. And the person that really spearheaded this movement, you have Vivian, his daughter, who started getting those signatures years ago. And you have Dave Isay, who used to work here at WBAI, and he went on to National Public Radio. And Dave met Moreese in 1989, is that right? At Angola?
DAVE ISAY: It was 19—yeah, it was 1990, actually, early in 1990.
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Yeah, 1990.
AMY GOODMAN: And Dave went down to Angola prison to do a documentary on the lifers there, which is a documentary we’ve played on WBAI called Tossing Away the Keys. And Moreese was—he was one of the first people you met there, wasn’t he?
DAVE ISAY: I think he was the first person I met. And it struck me right away what an incredible man he is. I mean, I think he gives off an aura. I mean, what kind of man, knowing the story that we know, could survive with his sanity for all those years inside prison? And you can feel that when you sit down with Moreese. And there was something—there was this spirituality about him that struck me and stuck with me. And I’m just so thankful that things have turned out the way they have and that Moreese can sit here today with all of us here, a free man.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Moreese, do you remember first meeting Dave?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Yes, ma’am. I never will forget that day. He was asking me questions about the rosebushes that I was tending. I had about 24 of them around the different buildings. And he said, “Bickham, how you and these rosebushes make it?” I said, “Well, they’s my best companion.” I said, “This is my company keep.” And I said, “I got all of them named after my old, used-to-be girlfriends.” And I said, “But this big pretty pink one here”—the bush was big as him around, you know, I had to trim that—I said, “This is my pride and joy. I named this one after my wife Ernestine.” And, boy, he went—he took that, and he went with it. He even went and bought him a kitten named Ernestine.
DAVE ISAY: I do. I have a cat named Ernestine.
MOREESE BICKHAM: He shared a picture and all this. But he didn’t know that me and Ernestine wasn’t together at the time. And so, that was one of those things.
DAVE ISAY: I got to tell you, Moreese, Ernestine—it was very strange. Ernestine was so excited last night. I’ve never seen her—she kept me up all night. She was jumping around.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, who are you talking about?
DAVE ISAY: Ernestine, my cat, named after—
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: After my mom. His cat named after my mom.
DAVE ISAY: Named after Moreese’s wife.
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Named after my mom.
DAVE ISAY: So I didn’t sleep a wink. But I was happy not to sleep a wink. It was with joy and excitement, both Ernestine and I were so excited about today.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, how did you end up getting Mike, Mike Alcamo, who’s also in the studio with us this morning, into this picture?
DAVE ISAY: Well, Mike was a friend of the family. And when he graduated from law school, Mike had a reputation around my family for being able to accomplish things that no one else could accomplish, using means that were unlike any means anybody else would use.
MICHAEL ALCAMO: Creative, creative means.
AMY GOODMAN: Sounds like WBAI.
DAVE ISAY: And that Mike refused to give up and that he would—I mean, this was a case that no one should have taken on, to be perfectly honest, because there was no chance that Moreese was ever going to get out. I mean, let’s be honest. This is a miracle. And there was only one person who could take on the case, and that was Mike Alcamo. And he graduated from law school, and I told him—and he joined a law firm, and I said, “Why don’t you do something good here?” And it took a little bugging, but once he got a look at the trial transcripts, he was sold. And he has spent the last more than a year working tirelessly. And without a doubt, Moreese wouldn’t be sitting here today without Mike Alcamo.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike, what did you see in the trial transcript?
MICHAEL ALCAMO: Well, from the very first page, I realized that it was a terrible injustice. The prosecutor’s motive that he tried to present to the jury was that Moreese Bickham was not allowed a ride in a police car at 2:00 in the morning in the back woods of Louisiana, and that he was so filled with rage at being denied a ride in a police car with two part-time white deputies that he lay in wait at his house for the deputies to arrive so that he could murder them in cold blood. This was a man who was 41, a law-abiding citizen, an employee of the town. He was a meter reader. And it was utterly implausible to me that a case could be made for first-degree murder, that is premeditated murder, as if he hunted them down in cold blood. Now, there are degrees of murder. There’s accidental killing, which in Louisiana at the time would have earned him 21 years of Southern hospitality, and as a first offender, he’d have been out after seven. From his story and from all the corroboration that I received, it was purely self-defense. There should have been no crime. He should have been acquitted. A jury of his peers today would acquit him completely.
Instead, he was convicted by a handpicked white jury, whose names did not appear on the jury pool. OK? I obtained the jury pool, and I knew who was supposed to be on the jury, and the jurors were not on that list. So, they were clearly picked by the judge. And he was convicted very quickly of first-degree murder, sentenced to death. Now, the jury had the discretion in those days whether to impose life or whether to impose death. And that’s the reason that Mr. Bickham’s death sentence was later ruled unconstitutional in 1972. The Supreme Court invalidated hundreds of cases across the country, when the jury had the unfettered discretion to impose death. It was therefore arbitrary and capricious. In ’72, his case was converted to life without parole, and it was there that he lingered through the ’70s and ’80s and well into the ’90s.
But I do want to say, Amy, that this case was cracked by a chorus of voices. This case is really about the voices that came together to break it. And your voice was a very loud and important one. And the voices of all the listeners of WBAI were crucial. Now, as you’ll recall, we had a very moving conference call. It was the first time, quite frankly, that I had ever talked with Mr. Bickham. I worked on the case through the fall of '94 and into the spring, writing letters every day in my spare time. And I tried to make spare time, because I'm a corporate lawyer, and you search—we search for those spare moments. Well, we had a conference call one morning at 7:30. Mr. Bickham called in collect to David and was patched into the conversation. And it was the first conversation I had with him. His granddaughters went wild. Vivian was on the line. There was sobbing, and it was an incredibly moving experience. And it was at that point that Amy began to read the phone number of the governor of Louisiana. By the end of the day, they had to change the number in the governor’s office. Hundreds of calls were made to the governor.
And it was that aspect that poked the great beast of the Louisiana bureaucracy into taking a look at the case. It was then that my calls started getting returned, and I was able to go over every aspect of the case with the governor’s lawyers and say, “Look, this was unjust for these five reasons.” And then we reached out to some elderly statesmen in Louisiana who had been in the—close to the governor for many years, and they took a look at the file, said a few words to the governor. Other words were said. Vivian sent a petition with 350 signatures. I was so incredibly impressed. I sent dozens and dozens of petitions around the country.
DAVE ISAY: He looked at Moreese’s file, and law enforcement in Mandeville was still vigorously opposing him. And he said—
MICHAEL ALCAMO: He said, “It’s hopeless.”
DAVE ISAY: “It’s hopeless. He is never going to get out.”
MICHAEL ALCAMO: He said, “I’ve never seen so many letters from policemen”—
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. “Give up.”
MICHAEL ALCAMO: —”opposing a pardon.”
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. And at that time, Michael was preparing to go back to try and reopen the case, which would have taken years and years and years. And quite frankly, we didn’t think that you’d get out—you’d make it, Moreese. And then, by some miracle—and I don’t know, Mike—I mean, I’ve never asked you this. I don’t know if you did something. I don’t know what happened. But what was it? March 13?
MICHAEL ALCAMO: It was March 13, yeah. We promised—
DAVE ISAY: March 13th.
MICHAEL ALCAMO: We spoke to Mr. Bickham through the fall, and we said we promised we’d get him out by Christmas.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah.
MICHAEL ALCAMO: And by Christmas, I was just so dejected. And it was, you know, an utterly quixotic goal—
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, yeah.
MICHAEL ALCAMO: —to set for yourself.
DAVE ISAY: But suddenly, a phone call came to Mike.
MICHAEL ALCAMO: March 13th, I got a call.
DAVE ISAY: And then he called me. He said, “Dave, you better sit down. You are not going to believe this. The governor just signed Moreese’s papers.” And he faxed me over that commutation of sentence, and it’s hanging on my wall, and it’ll hang on the wall for the rest of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Moreese, do you remember that day?
MOREESE BICKHAM: Do you remember me getting upset about how it was signed and one thing and another?
MICHAEL ALCAMO: Yes.
MOREESE BICKHAM: About my 14 years [inaudible]. One of the wardens was sitting in the room when I was talking to [inaudible] about it. And he knew, and [inaudible] knew, but they tried to show me that’s the way to do it. I said, “No, it’s not, neither.” I said, “At this rate, what I have here, I won’t be eligible for parole, and then I’ll be on parole for lifetime. But if I get them other 14 years”—said, “Go get the paper and the letter.” Now, they started it all when I was going down to walk about six blocks. When I got back, the warden said, “Bickham, let me tell you something.” He said, “We tallied your time, and you got double good time, and you was eligible for parole in ’83.” Said, “They ain’t going to give it to you.”
MICHAEL ALCAMO: Mm-hmm, that’s right.
MOREESE BICKHAM: “But they’re going to bring you up there to keep from violating that right.” He said, “But they want you to do all the time.” I said, “Well, then, how long am I going to be done? ’Til about 2027?” You know? I said, “I’d be in California on parole and can’t go”—he said, “Oh, [inaudible]. But let me tell you, you got a discharge date.” I said, “What?” You know, it kind of threw me for a loop. He said, “You got a discharge date, January the 6th—January the 10th, 1996.” I said, “Warden, you wouldn’t be kidding me, would you?” He said, “You ain’t got your rap sheet?” I said, “No.” He said, “Oh, it’ll be in the mail.” See, when the mailman come and hand me that sheet, and I look down at what it said: “Fully discharged with double good time, January the 10th, 1996.”
MICHAEL ALCAMO: Well, maybe I should explain. It was Mr. Bickham’s conduct as a prisoner and the leadership that he showed to other prisoners that earned him that release date, because there’s a statute in Louisiana called the good time statute, where you get a day off for every day served on good behavior. So we had sought a commutation to 75 years, hoping that we could negotiate with the prison for them to give him full credit for every day that he had served. And in fact, he had provided such incredible leadership through his church activities and through just being a spiritual and a moral leader to other prisoners that they did in fact give him credit for every single day, and his sentence was reduced by half. So, we got the commutation to 75 years, half of which is 37 years, six months. Calculated from the day he was arrested in Mandeville, came out to January 10th, which was just a few days ago.
DAVE ISAY: And I know Vivian has something to say, but just I—I just want to quickly say that, I mean, it’s important to remember that Louisiana still fought Mike every step of the way. I mean, Moreese went up on a parole hearing so he could get out for Christmas this year, and he was denied parole. They said it would be an insult to every law enforcement officer in the country if Moreese was freed. So, it’s endless. It’s endless. Vivian?
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: That’s what I wanted to speak on. When you say most of the ones from Mandeville fought that, against getting out, it’s like a tradition. The Ku Klux Klan like falls on down, and it keeps on going, and whatever they say, it holds it there. And that’s why, at the time he was turned down for Easter, he was turned down for Christmas, Mike, himself, when he went down, I told him, I said, “You know, I want to feel good about it. I want to accept it. I know you’re doing what you’re doing. But, you know, when you get around that table and you look at them, you’re going to really, truly see how they is conditioned to keep acting and holding that same behavior, keeping them down, keeping the people in prison until they drop or be buried there.” And it’s just a total miracle that he worked out all this system, as I say, getting credit for each day or having a good behavior in a prison, when you are not even supposed to be there in the first place. You look at it like this, it’s a miracle. I mean, they held him until they couldn’t hold him anymore: January 10.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Can I speak?
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: And I’m glad he’s out.
BERNARD WHITE: Sure, you can.
MOREESE BICKHAM: My trial started Wednesday morning, 9:00. Eleven o’clock Wednesday night, it broke up. They drove me about 30 miles to another jail, two people in the car. Now, these people that want to see me dead has already threatened the judge, me and everybody else, and they got things like they wanted. They ain’t worried about it. Thursday, the same thing, 9:00 to 10:00 or 11:00, 30 miles and back. That went on through Saturday morning. And when Saturday morning come, and they come with the verdict—guilty as charged—they was happy.
VIVIAN JEFFERSON: Clapped.
MOREESE BICKHAM: Clapping their hands, saying, “Now we’re going to have a barbecue.” So when I’m fighting appeals for two years and something, they had me in a little jail, before I started, in two years, called [inaudible]. On the Thursday, they drove around that jail, three or four cars, blowing their whistles. The jailer come up and put us all in a cell together and said, “I’m going back down to go to sleep. They don’t know one from another.” I know who they’re after.
Friday night, they done the same thing. See, 4:00 the next—that Saturday morning, well, you see, they ride around there two days, but Saturday night, that’s when they’re going to have the picnic. Saturday morning, I was on my way to New Orleans back on the fifth floor, where I got put when I got arrested. I stayed there another 11 months or 12. They finished the jailing at the place where I lived. I was the first one in there, put me in a cell, gave me the run of the jail. I decided I enjoyed, but I didn’t like it. I stayed there. I had church every night, not one night, every night.
Now, doing this and that had drawn people around then. One of the families, the same identical one that you’re all seeing now, that was against me and pulling against me, her brother and her sister come up there every couple of—I want say every three weeks or a month, and see me on that floor and tell me, “We don’t want to see him do you nothing, because grandpa and them was messing over you.” Now, the DA and the judge heard this and said, “He’s gaining influence of the family. Let’s pass a law in the Legislature. When you’re through with the Louisiana appeals and Louisiana Supreme Court, send him to Angola death row.” They passed that on a Friday. Monday morning, I was handcuffed to another white boy, me and him headed for death row in Angola. And that’s where I stayed.
DAVE ISAY: But Moreese came so close to dying, it’s terrifying. And Moreese has talked about—he actually was able to survive. He talked about being in a mental institution, but Moreese had to pretend he was crazy for two years. And he actually was speechless for two years. He didn’t speak, so that he wouldn’t—he wouldn’t be executed. And his attorney, who I know, Moreese, you have good feelings for him, although he didn’t seem to do a very good job, to Michael and I, from the looks of the trial transcript. Moreese says that he’s the only person—the only attorney in Louisiana who would have saved him. And once he got on death row, the attorney was able to—when Moreese went into the mental hospitals, the attorney stopped them from giving him shock treatment and medication by saying that he had a heart problem. But he—Moreese came so close to death.
MICHAEL ALCAMO: He was in solitary confinement for those 12 years on death row. Death row is solitary 23 hours of the day, because they figure you have nothing to lose if you’re in with the general population. And, in fact, the British Bar Association—a small legal note—has written a brief that it is—it is a cruel and inhuman punishment to incarcerate someone for that long in solitary confinement on death row in anticipation of his or her own death.
MOREESE BICKHAM: When I look back at the beginning, I say I was blessed to be living. You know, if a person look back at anything and see what he’d come from, then they might visualize where they’re going. But once you’re just going in one direction and don’t look around or see what kind of ground you’re on, you don’t get nowhere, but never know it. But I knew if I got through all of that, what I was starting with and up until now, and I had already got a vision that I was going to get out, well, I got something to live for. I had an officer tell me, he said, “Bickham, I can give you something to stop all that, and you won’t have to worry about it.” I looked at him and said, “You’ve got to be crazy.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “I’m in this trying to live. Now, you think I’m going to kill my own self? You’ve got to be crazy.”
AMY GOODMAN: Think of yourself, Moreese, being called an American hero.
MOREESE BICKHAM: I want to just say to my listeners in New Jersey, here, especially the ones that come to Louisiana and I talked with, that you all sent down.
BERNARD WHITE: [inaudible].
MOREESE BICKHAM: Yeah.
BERNARD WHITE: I called her.
MOREESE BICKHAM: And another lady by Miss Grobeck [phon.], L-A-R—Lareen Grobeck lives in New Jersey, which was supposed to have come to New Orleans to see me after Christmas. But some way or another, her friend didn’t make it, and she didn’t make it. I hope that she hears this show, like she did the first time. And me and her have been writing for about a year now. She—tell her I’m sorry I didn’t write here, because I’ve been tied up. I hope she hears this show. I hope she’ll hear this show.
MICHAEL ALCAMO: Amy, we have to go.
MOREESE BICKHAM: And I thank you all.
BERNARD WHITE: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: We thank you.