Shujaa Graham speaks of capital punishment in alternate chapel

Alyssa Burd
Student Writer

Students of Messiah College were provided with the opportunity to attend an alternate chapel with guest speaker Shujaa Graham in Frey Hall on March 24th, 2015. Graham is an exonerated death row inmate who came to share his experiences and struggles he faced while imprisoned.

The event opened with a brief introduction of both Graham and his wife, Phyllis, before the floor was turned over to Graham to relate his story. Graham spoke of his early life in Lake Providence, Louisiana as well as the three years he spent in prison before the age of eighteen for his association with neighborhood gangs.

He went on to explain his time within the walls of Soledad Prison where he came of age and taught himself to read and write while being mentored by the leaders of the Black Prison Movement. He later became a civil rights leader as well as a political activist. However, on November 27th, 1973, Graham was framed for the murder of prison guard Jerry Sanders and spent the next several years of his life on death row until he was proven innocent and exonerated in 1979.

Graham spoke passionately and fought to control his emotions throughout much of the chapel. “I have been wounded by the blows of capital punishment”, Graham stated through his tears, “but I am not slain. I am not a victim. Victims are dead. I am a survivor”.

According to Graham, he and his wife have dedicated the past two decades of their lives to “…providing a voice for those who don’t have a voice”. Graham has traveled across the nation giving lectures about the death penalty and the criminal justice system to college students and other American youths.

At the conclusion of the chapel lecture, the floor was then opened for Messiah students to pose their questions and opinions. The session began with questions from seniors Andrew Miller and Kevin Wilcox. Miller and Wilcox, as well as numerous other students, expressed their appreciation for Graham’s lecture before posing several inquiries to both Graham and his wife in regards to their views on capital punishment as well as how Graham’s time on death row has influenced their family life and personal relationships.

Once the question and answer session concluded, Graham hugged and shook hands with the students before ending his lecture with a piece of advice for college undergraduates: “Use your education to help people. When you do, you will make this state a greater state. When you make the state a greater state, you will make America a greater America. And when you make America a greater America, you will make this world a greater universe.”

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