Joan Cheever reports on The Huffington Post in an article entitled “Fifty Years later, the Oldest Survivor of Death Row USA Casts Ballot for Obama” that Moreese “Pops” Bickham is voting for Barack Obama. Ms. Cheever accompanied Mr Bickham to our 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break. He is pictured at left with some of the students.
Moreese Bickham spent 13, 695 days behind bars; 37 years and six months in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He stayed 14 years and 10 months on Louisiana’s death row.
But the 91 year-old Bickham is not looking back. He’s focused on living in the Free World in a country he hopes will soon be governed by the first African American president .
“In all my life, I never thought I’d see this day. A black American going to be the next president of the United States of America,” Bickham said. “I am the grandson of a slave. Born in Tylertown, Mississippi and farmed my grandma’s land. And then we had the poll tax.”
Between 1889 and 1910, 11 Southern states adopted a poll tax, targeted to disenfranchise black Americans. The poll tax wasn’t eliminated until 1964 when the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
But one month ago, on a crisp fall afternoon in late September, I drive Mr. Bickham to the Obama headquarters in the small Pacific Northwest town where he currently resides, to make sure he is registered to vote. I have known Moreese Bickham since 1996, the year he was released from prison. He is a subject in my book, Back From the Dead: One woman’s search for the men who walked off America’s death row. (John Wiley & Sons 2006).
In the past 18 months, Mr. Bickham and I have often talked of the 2008 presidential election. During a fishing trip in mid-June, after the Democratic primary, our conversation turned to the very real possibility of an Obama presidency. And the impact it would have on all Americans.
After the recent media reports of voter intimidation, especially in regards to convicted felons, I became alarmed that this former Death Row inmate might not be allowed to vote – a man who survived seven execution dates, three heart attacks, prostate cancer, and a questionable conviction for murder, in the first place.
Three weeks after visiting Mr. Bickham, with more news of voting list purges and intimidation primarily in six swing states, I call a family meeting and tell my two teenagers and husband, that we must make an emergency trip to North Carolina. That’s how we ended up last week in the Cary, NC Obama office for our dual “family political vacation” and on site civics lesson.
But on the afternoon with Mr. Bickham, he does not share my fear about whether he can vote. He knows that he can. He voted in the 2004 presidential election. He has confidence in the 2008 electoral process and the patience of a 91-year-old African American.
The campaign office is empty when we walk in at 3 pm. Angela and Ann, Obama volunteers, are busy organizing stacks of campaign literature.
“Good afternoon, ladies. My name is Bickham. Moreese Bickham,” he says, and tips his black felt hat. “I’m here to make sure I’m registered to vote. Was born in Tylertown, Mississippi in 1917.”
The two women jump up and grab a folding chair, opening it and asking the World War II Navy veteran to sit down.
“I got here my Veterans Administration ID card. Now here’s my Social Security card. Miss Joan here told me to bring proof of address. So I have.”
Mr. Bickham became eligible to vote the day he was released from prison. He has never been on parole. In January 1996, he walked out as a free man, after serving almost 40 years. During his time inside, Mr. Bickham had an no disciplinary infractions; he received his GED and became an ordained Methodist minister. During the last two years in Angola, Mr. Bickham worked as the caretaker of the prison cemetery. On the last day in Angola, he went to a funeral for a fellow inmate.
Mr. Bickham was sent to Death Row for the July 12, 1958 murders of two white police officers in Mandeville, Lourisiana, an area where Jim Crow segregation prevailed in the 1950s and where there was an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the early morning hours of July 12, Mr. Bickham and his girlfriend got into a fight at Buck’s Bar in Mandeville; one of the officers broke up the fight and gave Mr. Bickham’s girlfriend a ride home. The then 41-year-old Bickham, who had no prior record, said the officer called him a “Nigger” and threatened to kill him. But prosecutors maintained that Mr. Bickham returned to his home and waited to ambush the two officers.
Mr. Bickham says when they arrived, he put his hands up to surrender. But one of the officers shot him in the chest and then both officers continued to shoot. He then returned fire and moments later, both officers were dead.
“I pray all the time for forgiveness. It always weighs heavy on my mind. I didn’t feel like I had a choice that night. It was me or them.”
Mr. Bickham was more surprised that he was still alive on the day of his trial.
“My two great grandfathers were lynched. So I was surprised that I didn’t end up at the lynching tree.”
In closing arguments, his own lawyer called him “a darky on a Saturday night.” The all-white male jury took only two hours to find Moreese Bickham guilty and sentence him to death.
Joan Cheever, with Moreese Bickham in background, at the 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break.