“I have been looking for inspiration and next steps regarding the book. And now, I have found it.”
This quote I placed on our Southern Shock Americana (Life and Execution of John Mills, Jr.), Facebook page this past March, in reference to a TED Talk video by Bryan Stevenson.
As a lawyer and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Mr. Stevenson’s speech, ‘We need to talk about an injustice’, dealt with unfair sentencing practices within the criminal justice system.
He has had more than his share of experience with people on death row, children prosecuted as adults, and individuals perceived to have been mentally ill at the time of their sentencing.
Later, I received a note from a man in Jacksonville who read ‘Southern Shock Americana…’ and had relatives in Wakulla.
He also donated to last year’s Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the book’s first printing. He encouraged me to apply for something called TEDx Jacksonville.
TED Talks, which take place around the world, began as an idea in 1984 to merge Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) together in a public presentation. It took years before their ‘Ideas worth spreading’ concept caught on with the general public.
Today, TED Talks are viewed online for free by millions across the globe. From scientists to seminarians to schoolteachers, each speech presents an idea that brings a new awareness to old thinking. TEDx Talks are the offspring of the original TED presentations.
I filled out an application for TEDx Jacksonville and sent it in. I mentioned it to only one person.
In August, the email arrived.
My mother and father were at their home that day and I recall asking them to sit and watch Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk with me.
When it ended, I handed my mother the email announcing that out of 90-plus applications I had been selected to present my talk. She howled.
My father sat with a cryptic smile. I’ve known his face for more than forty years, but it is this particular smile that I’ve never been sure of.
It is a mix of joy and worry:
Joy, because it can strike a match to illuminate the darkness we’ve dwelled in for so long.
Worry, because opportunity often carries consequence.
Since writing the book, a few of our Wakulla citizenry tend give me the sideways glance. And to think, I’m not even a politician.
And that is how my TEDx Jacksonville journey began.
Once my speech, ‘How to Survive an Execution: 5 Things You Should Know’, was written, I was provided a coach to help craft its presentation. In this, I was lucky.
The coach, Sarah Clarke Stuart, lived in Jacksonville but was originally from Tallahassee. Years back, her mother had been a Wakulla school teacher, which meant that Sarah was familiar with the area.
Sarah is now an English professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville and also a writer.
One of her more popular works, Literary Lost: Viewing Television Through the Lens of Literature, takes as its main focal point, the once popular small screen hit, Lost.
The following months were a busy time, filled with rewrites, memorization, and preparation for both Creature Feature at Wakulla Springs, and an upcoming theatre performance in Tallahassee.
I’d been working with Agnes Furey to turn her book, Wildflowers in the Median, into a one-act play.
Agnes’ 40-year old daughter, Patricia, and 6-year old grandson, Christopher, were murdered by a man they’d befriended named Leonard Scovens.
Agnes rallied for Leonard’s life to be spared. Due to her efforts he is currently serving consecutive life terms in prison.
She and Leonard have corresponded over the years in an attempt to come to grips with their collective tragedy. It was from their letters to each other that the ‘Wildflowers’ book was born; co-authored by both.
I chose to take Agnes to the TEDx event as my guest. I wanted her with me because we shared a similar pain, but on opposite ends of the pain spectrum. She represents the family of the victim, whereas I represent that of the accused.
The final rehearsal for all TEDxJacksonville speakers took place in late October, on a Friday, with the main event to be held the next day.
All was fine that sunny Jacksonville Friday, until I stepped into the stage arena. It was huge, bright, and electric.
I looked at Agnes, looked at the stage, and was desperately concocting a route of escape.
When Saturday arrived I was anxious; mentally and physically exhausted.
There were twelve speakers. The theme of the event was “(un)knowing”. Or, how a particular knowledge – if unlearned – could possibly open minds and become a catalyst for a new way of thinking.
The event was broken into four sessions:
…with food breaks and musical performances in between.
As luck would have it, I would open the last session. This meant my simmering in torment for hours before giving the speech. My mental state was not made any better by this (un)wanted knowledge.
The talks ranged from internet privacy, to the future of neuroscience, to unraveling the perceptions of what it means to be physically disabled, with other tantalizing topics spread throughout.
And yet, my thoughts kept turning back towards home. Not the urge to physically gather myself and leave at that precise moment, but the mounting realization of what – and who – I represented when speaking in a public forum such as this.
There were two talks that made a profound impression on me.
One was by Ed McMahon, of the Urban Land Institute in Washington DC, who spoke about the power of uniqueness.
He began with a generic photo of Anytown, America, overrun with fast food, gas, department store, and ‘buy here, buy now’ signs.
The entire landscape was all but obliterated by signage that – even in their plastic silence – began to scream with suffocating effect.
Thoughts of Wakulla came to mind. It was late October and the county was teetering on the decisive edge of an election season.
“Place is more than a spot on a map,” said Mr. McMahon. “Place is what makes your hometown different than mine. It’s what makes the physical surrounding worth caring about.”
“The image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic well-being,” he continued. “Every single day in America, people make decisions where to live, invest, vacation, retire… based on what a community looks like.”
I thought of my many trips to Jacksonville before the event and the relaxed feeling that comes when reaching Bloxham Cut-Off, knowing I’m not far from home.
I thought of the signs that greeted me at my county’s front door each and every trip that led up to the election.
I wondered: If I’d never been to Wakulla before, what would the landscape tell me about the people and the things they value?
The second talk came from Ali Butcher, a geographer and historian from Vancouver, Canada.
Ali spoke about bringing new vision to old spaces and how Vancouver has incorporated art, organic lawn gardens, an urban reef, and wetlands to develop more than property value; becoming true stewards of the earth by giving something back to it.
From Ali’s talk I began to see a way out of the recent Wakulla Wetlands War of 2014.
But, something like that would take the work of human hands that want nothing whatsoever to do with the brutality that often stinks the wind of political seasons and elections.
Each of the talks that afternoon held and fascinated me. But my time was close.
That’s when Mama Blue, a Jacksonville native who received a scholarship to Jacksonville University in vocal performance, stepped onto the stage.
“I don’t have anything deep to say about my songs,” Mama Blue said, “except that they are seeds and I am grateful, and feel blessed, to be planting them in the most fertile soil in Jacksonville today.”
The song was ‘Have a Little Faith in Me’.
It spoke of how we are not alone, and how the memories of loved ones gone somehow remain with us.
I thought of my mother and father and how excited they were for me to be here; of my uncle, whose life was destroyed and would have been lived in vain if I failed to take the next step.
I thought of Maya Angelou’s ‘Our Grandmothers’ poem that states: “I go forth alone, but stand as ten thousand…”
Something in me shook and I began to shed tears about the past and the future.
All of it mingled with tears of gratitude for the present.
Finally, someone from the tech crew placed a tiny clip-on microphone to my shirt and pointed me to my spot.
The event’s co-host, Hope McMath, Director of The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, announced me.
I was not aware until that moment that she had read my entire book and was now proceeding to give the audience – of well over 300 – a heartfelt history of my family, uncle, and myself.
It was overwhelming.
I put my hand in my pants-pocket, touching the small gray stone from my uncle’s grave that I brought with me.
The other hand felt at my shirt pocket where his prayer cap was neatly tucked close to my heart.
Again my name was spoken and, although I heard the applause, I felt it more than anything else.
And so, I took a deep breath…
Into the light.
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SOUTHERN SHOCK AMERICANA:
The Life & Execution of John Mills, Jr.
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“Horrifying that this can actually happen. I was shocked that this had taken place in the county where I live. It certainly opened my eyes.” – Marianne Dazevedo
“I can’t find the words to write how horrified I am that racism still rears up in all of its ugliness and ignorance in this country. Hatred is hatred and it is insanity at its worst. Herb brings this to light in his book. He is a gifted writer! That he took action to right this wrong by bringing it to light is a tribute to his soul! It is a must read!” – Mary Kaye Keller
“This is one you can’t put down for very long at a time. Having worked in law enforcement and the judicial system of Wakulla County, as well as being acquainted with the “players” of this writing, I am dumbfounded by my ignorance of the manipulations involved in this murder and trial thereof. It will rattle long held beliefs concerning the death penalty and our “justice” system. Only God knows the truth of this one. May He have mercy on all involved – the good, the bad and the ugly. I am thankful that this was a few years before my move to Wakulla.” – Patricia Tadlock
“I read this book in two days. It was hard to put down. I found it shocking that Florida could execute someone based on the evidence that was presented. My heart went out to all families involved.” – Wilma
“If you thought that racism was gone in the south by the 80’s, you are sadly mistaken. I was there! I reread pages many times and kept saying WHERE WAS I? Kept me enthralled through the whole book. Written in an entertaining way even though the subject matter is intense. LOVED THIS BOOK.” – Cheryl Morgan
“A worthy read for anyone who values history, family, community, and justice. Written in a style which allows the pages to flow smoothly, bringing myriad divergent threads together in a sensible manner which neglects neither fact nor humanity.” – Grace