Activist and writer Anthony Ray Hinton will deliver the keynote address and receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree at Emory University’s 178th Commencement Ceremony on May 8. University President Gregroy Fenves announced the decision in a March 28 email to Emory students.
Hinton is well-known for the 28 years he spent on Alabama’s death row after being wrongfully convicted of murdering two fast food workers in 1998 on the basis that the revolver used in the murders, as well as a third uncharged crime, was taken from his mothers’ home. The Equal Justice Initiative took on his case, and in 2002, three top firearms examiners testified that the revolver could not be matched to the murders. However, state courts did not reexamine the case, leaving Hinton imprisoned for over 10 more years.
“The courage Mr. Hinton showed on Death Row is almost impossible to comprehend,” Fenves wrote. “His freedom was taken from him, yet he found peace and forgiveness and has dedicated himself to spreading truth and light in the world.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately reversed the lower courts’ decisions in 2012 to grant Hinton a new trial. The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences confirmed the findings that the bullets used in the murders could not be tied to the revolver from Hinton’s mother’s home, leading a judge to ultimately dismiss the charges.
For the first time in 28 years, Hinton was a free man. As he walked out of the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Ala. in 2015, Hinton told his family that “the sun does shine,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Three years later, Hinton published his best-selling book about his experiences, “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.”
Shivani Kumar (23B) said she is glad Hinton’s story is receiving attention, as she considers his situation an “outrageous problem.”
“Things aren’t going to change if these stories aren’t told,” Kumar said. “So the fact that Emory, an institution of so much prominence, has given the microphone to Mr. Hinton, it’s a wonderful thing.”
Hinton now works as an Equal Justice Initiative community educator, serving as “a tireless and powerful advocate for abolition of the death penalty.” He also works with LifeLines, a U.K. organization dedicated to supporting death row inmates in the United States with letter writing, which Anushree Jain (23B) said is inspiring.
“It takes a lot of mental strength and mental willpower to actually get through times like that,” Jain said. “Seeing him take steps to … do prison reform and all the other equal justice initiatives and things like that he’s doing is just very admirable.”
James Cox Kennedy and Sarah Kenan Kennedy will also receive honorary degrees alongside Hinton. James and Sarah Kennedy, who are married, will each receive a Doctor of Humane Letters degree for their dedication to improving “the quality of life in our community,” according to the press release.
James Kennedy is chairman emeritus of Cox Enterprises and chairman of the James M. Cox Foundation. The foundation has four primary focus areas — conservation and environment, early childhood education, empowering families and individuals for success and health — and supplies grants to capital campaigns and special projects related to these fields.
Including both personal and foundational donations, James Kennedy has given more than $60 million to Emory to fund Alzheimer’s disease and cancer research, as well as promote patient-centered care. He has also donated more than $2 million to the Marcus Autism Center, which collaborates with Emory.
Sarah Kennedy serves on the Executive Advisory Council of the Emory Brain Health Center as a civic and community leader. Along with her family, Sarah Kennedy has supported Alzheimer’s research at Emory after her late father battled the disease. In 2011, Sarah and James Kennedy donated $5 million to the cause. The pair principally funded an Emory clinical trial for a drug treatment intervention against mild cognitive impairment, which is often seen before patients fully develop Alzheimer’s.
In recent years, Emory’s commencement speakers have included actor Tyler Perry in 2022, former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci in 2021 and civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson in 2020.
Last year, Emory awarded Sally Yates and Louise Glenn with honorary degrees. Yates served as Acting Attorney General in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for 10 days, before she was dismissed for instructing the Department of Justice to not defend Executive Order 13769, which temporarily banned the admission of refugees and barred travel from multiple Muslim-majority countries. Glenn is the founding trustee of The Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation, which has financially supported initiatives like establishing the Emory Glenn Family Breast Center, the Emory Winship Cancer Institute’s first named center for a specific type of cancer.
Emory is among the last of its peer institutions to announce a 2023 commencement speaker. The University of Pennsylvania will host “Abbott Elementary” star Quinta Brunson. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will speak at Rice University’s (Texas) commencement and Marvel Studios Producer and President Kevin Fiege will do the same at the University of Southern California’s commencement.
Hinton wrote in the press release that he is “honored” to deliver Emory’s Commencement address.
“I always value the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with young people getting ready to embark on their own journeys,” Hinton wrote. “I want to make sure young people know that even on the nights where there are tears (and there will be those nights), the sun will shine again.”
Kheyal Roy-Meighoo (23C) added that she hopes Emory will continue Hinton’s legacy of prison reform after Commencement.
“I hope that having him speak here is the first in many steps that Emory takes to resist the expansion of this very unfair criminal justice system and policing system that is … especially present in the American South.”
Update (3/29/23 at 11:07 a.m.): This article was updated to include comments from Shivani Kumar (23B), Anushree Jain (23B) and Kheyal Roy-Meighoo (23C).
Correction (4/7/23 at 2:23 p.m.): An original version of this article stated that Shivani Kumar (23B) called the U.S. prison system an “outrageous problem.” In fact, she called Anthony Ray Hinton’s situation an “outrageous problem,” not the U.S. prison system.