November 13, 2008

Delbert Lee Tibbs

—as appears in Studs Terkel's book Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith.


Delbert Tibbs

He had served two years on death row in the state of Florida. He had been convicted by an all-white jury of rape and murder. Years later, the sentence was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court for lack of evidence.

I AM A MAN of African and other roots: Indian, and no doubt European, as my research would indicate. A father, a citizen of the United States of America, and a man on the planet Earth. I was born in Mississippi, on a sharecropper's plantation, around sixty years ago. I grew up there until I was about twelve years old, at which time we migrated to Chicago, my mother and I. My mother had twelve children, like the twelve tribes. I was the last. Her baby, she called me. I went to Chicago public schools, from about the fifth grade through high school, and later I went to college for a bit. I went to the Chicago Theological Seminary from 1970 to 1972.

My mother was a black Baptist fundamentalist. I am spiritually orientated. I didn't go to the seminary actually to be a preacher—I went because I had fiddled around in school. I considered myself uneducated at the time. When I came up from Mississippi at twelve years old, I was practically illiterate. Black children were not expected to be educated—in fact, it was dangerous to be educated in Mississippi if you were black in the fifties. If you came from a black family, let's say middle-class, they would send you away to school. There you would be in danger just because of the fact that you were pursuing knowledge. That has always been something that has nettled me, the fact that my underpinnings were not good—that I might be an educated man impelled me to become a bookworm. I met a teacher in the fifth grade here and she started me to reading, and I never stopped. It also was an escape for me from the horrors of urban life. Reading became an escape from the squalor, from the gangs, when I was growing up here in Chicago. I started out reading anything and then, as time went on, I began to read "significant" or meaningful works by whomever. I promised my mama that I was going to get an education.

One of the things that really got me going was that I failed English. I could do English basically from my reading, but I had no sense of the mechanics of grammar. I wrote a good paper, I read well, so the teachers would leave me alone. They didn't know that I didn't know any grammar. The same way with math, I just somehow got by. But when I went to night school, I flunked English, and that messed with my head.

In the meantime, I'm working a day job in the salt mines down at the old Lakeside Press, making telephone directories, Sears Roebuck and Sports Illustrated, Time, Life, and Look. It was one of the most racist places that ever existed on this earth. I also got a chance to read there all day—it kept me from probably leaping on one of those East Europeans and strangling him. I sometimes tell my son, "Hey man, I don't know what your mama tell you about but I made a few sacrifices for you, because I wouldn't have stayed at that damn job for seven years and hated every single day of it"—I mean, with a passion that you can hardly believe. They were sued recently. Class-action suit for all of the years we were kept out of the unions.

I don't know if they knew I was going to school—it wasn't something you'd necessarily want them to know. I can remember a timekeeper. I remember him asking me to work overtime one day, and I refused. What he didn't know was I left there and went to school. If I had been a white boy, I could have told him that and he'd have said, "Don't worry about it, go ahead." But I just told him no, and then he said, "Well, maybe eight hours is too much for you." Of course I had a fit, I called him all kind of expletives. To myself, of course … [Laughs] I decided "F--- them, I ain't ever going back there." But it taught me a lot. It taught me that if you have some heart, a little faith, God will take care of you. You might not always like the way He takes care of you, but He'll take care of you. So I quit my job. After a little hassle, I drew some unemployment, and then I went to school full-time. This was Delbert Superman—because, at that time, we thought education was the Balm in Gilead, education would fix everything. I mean, no more "yassuh, boss." It wasn't quite like that …

As a youngster, I wanted to be an adventurer, to live life to the fullest, go places that I'd never been. I used to tell people my ambition was to roam the world and make love to the various women of the world, drink the wines of Spain, the sake of Japan, and so forth. I leave Lakeside with nothing and no place to go. I'm twenty-three years old and I have a son who's four or five, and a wife that I'm separated from. The unemployment runs out before I can get my associate degree, and the rent man is banging on the door—so I have to go and find myself a job. And I did. I never read the Defender [*The Chicago Defender has, for years, been the most widely read African-American newspaper in the country.] before in my life. I never would look in the Defender for a job because blacks ain't got no jobs that are going to pay me any money to take care of my family. But I do. And there's an ad for claims adjusters for the Checker Taxi Company. Hell, I don't know what a claims adjuster is, but I'm six feet three, I have all of my teeth, and my mind is sharp as a Toledo sword. [Laughs] So I apply for the job. And this Texan hires me. I look like I can take care of myself. At the time, the brothers are raising so much sand it's dangerous for white adjusters to go into the black community. So for the first time in my life, I got a white-collar job, right? I wear a suit and a tie every day. So I do this for two years, three years, and am very good at it. Damn … I speak very well, and my boss said, "Mr. Tibbs, you know why you're so successful? Because people believe you." I said, "Well, generally speaking, I don't lie to them. I tell them what the deal is. I say, 'Hey, I can give you three grand now, or you get five grand later and a lawyer gets a third of that and a doctor gets the other part.'" That's my prejudice against insurance companies. So I would settle claims like that. And nobody ever came back and said, "Hey, I got cheated."

But the job was boring as hell. All kinds of other stuff was happening around human rights issues and so forth. I'm making good money, but that's only for me, it ain't doing nothing for my people. I'm not furthering my own growth, and so I spent a great deal of time afterwards boozing and carousing. After a couple of years, I met this beautiful young lady, Miss Julie Tyler, who was not at all typical of the young ladies I had met. She was a bourgeois black woman from Hyde Park. Her daddy was upper-middle-class. She had run away when she was sixteen to march with Martin Luther King and became a member of SNCC. [*Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] I quit my job and she and I got a place in Old Town, and, as the youngsters say now, we chilled out for the next year or so.

At the time, the black clergymen in Chicago had gone to the white seminaries and said, "Hey, you people graduate two or three hundred seminarians a year, but only one or two of them are black." I found out about this three-year program where one could get an MAT, Masters in Arts and Theology. So they opened it up to selected black folks, whether or not you had an undergraduate degree. I was saying cynically, "Yeah, they're looking for somebody to stem the shit that's jumping off now. And yeah, I'll do that because I do believe that peace is better than war, that friendship and that kind of stuff is better than enmity. I ain't going to be somebody's Uncle Tom, but I will do what I can …" And so also I will have fulfilled my promise to my mama: I will have myself a master's degree. It was really beautiful because I could read all day and didn't feel guilty for reading because it was course stuff.

And then crazy stuff starts happening. I had about five friends pass away, and these are young guys, in the matter of a year or two. And it scared the piss out of me, if you will pardon the expression. Not to mention the stuff that's happening in the street. The cops going and shooting [Black Panthers] Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. I dropped out of the seminary.

And then I had an experience. I was at a friend's house, someone I was in school with, and I was drinking orange juice, and I think this guy put LSD in it. The story really gets crazy. I left his house and I was taking one of our friends home. I looked at the girl and her face had changed. I had this very violent verbal reaction, and I'm not a violent guy. I think I scared her. I dropped her off at home and my body started shaking uncontrollably, which acid will do to you. Something was happening with my body and I didn't know what it was. I drove my car all night because I knew I couldn't sleep.

I'd dropped out of the seminary and now I don't know what to do with myself. There was an agitation within my spirit, so I said, "Well, I'll take off. I've never been anyplace except Mississippi, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana." I thought, you might not live that long anyway, so I took off and I took off walking. I wanted to go to California.

This was in 1972. I sold my car to my brother. When you're six-three and you're black, there are a lot of places you don't get no rides. So it was mostly walking, and then later on I rode freight trains. I'd get a job working by the day for two or three days, make twenty bucks a day. That would last me a couple of weeks. I smoke bulk tobacco, roll my own, and I sleep under bridges and in cars. I went all over the USA. I've been in all the states, except maybe three. So I was all over Florida. And when this crazy stuff jumps off, the murder and the rape thing—people say, "You were in the wrong place at the wrong time." Philosophically, I can't accept that. I was supposed to go through the experiences that I was supposed to go through for whatever reasons. I think God wanted me to disabuse myself of my fear of death, I really do. I think that's why I went to death row. I think God was saying to me, "OK, I'm going to show you there's nothing to fear out here but me. I'm going to the House of Death"—'cause that's what they call it, they call it the Death House—"and I'm going to bring you out again." [Laughs] And that's what happened.

During the time I was in Florida, this guy was killed, and allegedly this young white woman was raped. I really don't know what happened, because I wasn't there. But I do know I am not the perpetrator of it. I think what happened was this girl was like sixteen, and as pretty as you'll ever want to see, right? From Rhode Island. And she had been living with this photographer who was in his forties down in St. Pete.

A young white brother from downstate Illinois, who just got out of the navy, comes through. She says she had been smoking grass for several days, and I really believe this young ex-naval guy was maybe transporting. People did a lot of that back then, and Florida was one of the places that you could pick up really good weed. So this young guy, the guy who was killed, comes and stays in the trailer court where the girl was living in St. Petersburg, with her older photographer. And when the young guy takes off, she takes off with him. She runs away from her old man. At one point during the trial, my lawyer, from Chicago, he said to her, "Isn't it true that you ran away from this guy? The photographer, he pursued you and caught you on the highway and then killed this young man and threatened to kill you if you didn't come back with him?" She broke down and went to crying. And the judge, great pale defender of white Southern womanhood that he is, called for a recess. And my old scary black lawyer didn't bring it up when he came back because he didn't want to make these white folks mad at him. And I understand it—I'm a Southern boy. My rationale to them for being in the state was just that I wanted to roam across the country, which is typical of writers and artists and so forth, but it's not typical of black people. It's all right for Jack Kerouac, but not for Delbert Tibbs.

There's another assumption: this is my country, I can go anyplace I like. This happened around the 4th of February, 1974. On the 6th of February, the Florida state police stops me. They asked me to let them see my ID. I let them see my ID. I told them I'd been down in southern Florida doing farmwork. They questioned me, I guess, because Ocala is, I believe, maybe two hundred miles from Fort Myers—which is near where the crime occurred. The cops questioned me and let me go, but before they do that, they ask if I mind if they take photographs of me. I say, "No, I don't mind." So they take four Polaroid snapshots. One of the cops said, "Mr. Tibbs, I don't think you had anything to do with it, so I'm going to do you a favor." In the meantime, they don't know what to do with this nigger. I've got ID in my pocket from the University of Chicago, and photo ID and that kind of stuff, and yet here I am in Florida with these work clothes on. He says, "There's been a serious crime, and you're going to be stopped a number of other times because all the enforcement folks are going to stop people they see that are strangers." He wrote me out a letter saying, "This person, Delbert Tibbs, was questioned by me on the 6th of February, 1974, and I'm satisfied he's not the person wanted in connection with the crimes"—crimes, he never specified, which occurred around Fort Myers on such-and-such a date. And he let me go.

I think I got stopped once more after that. I go into Mississippi where I have an aunt. I tell her what I'm probably going to do is walk to Memphis, which is a hundred miles away, and stay at my uncle's house there. Then I'm going to call Roy, that's my brother who at that time was a lieutenant in the sheriffs department, and tell him to send me a hundred dollars. They think I'm crazy, 'cause I've left this job and I'm just roaming around the country. That's not typical for black young men to do. But I'm me and I don't always choose to follow the path that everybody else follows—which is what got me into trouble. I wasn't behaving—quote—the way a nigger ought to behave—end quote.

After a couple of weeks at my aunt's house, I get back on the highway. About ten miles from my aunt's house I see a Mississippi highway patrolman driving in the opposite direction. He goes past, turns around, and we go through the thing, "Let me see your ID." I show him my ID. He says, "You're Delbert Tibbs? You're wanted for rape and murder." He said, "There's a warrant for your arrest." I said, "Here's a letter I have." He said, "I don't know nothing about no letters, I don't know nothing about nothing. All I know is there's a warrant for your arrest." He puts the cuffs on me and takes me to the nearest jail, which is a little place called Clarksdale. [*Bessie Smith, the most celebrated of blues singers, was in an auto accident in Clarksdale in 1937. It is said that she was denied admission to the nearby white hospital and died on the way to another hospital.]

I didn't know at the time, but the photographs had been sent to Fort Myers. Initially, the girl had given a description of the rapist and murderer as a black man about five-six or -seven, with a great big Afro. I had a small Afro and I'm six three and relatively light-complexioned. The police are desperate to find someone, because there's a black murderer-rapist running loose. The cops take the Polaroid snapshots of me and by now I'm sure they've scared the pee out of her because she ain't come up with nobody and here's the corpse here, right. And they said, "Is this the guy?" And she said yes. So that's when the warrant went out. But now she's changed her description of the guy, right? I didn't know that at the time, but that's what's happened.

By then I had gone through a spiritual breakthrough where I almost didn't see people as black and white anymore. I had spent two years sleeping under the stars. I called it my "wilderness" experience. Two years more or less at the mercy of the world. I was someplace one evening, sitting in the doorway of this freight train, and folks in their cars and pickups were pulled up waiting for the train to go by so they could cross the track, and I see this little boy. There was a guy sitting in a truck, probably with a rifle in the back, and this little white boy jumps out, eight- or ten-year-old kid, and runs towards where I'm sitting in the door of the freight train. I'm thinking, What is this? He's running to bring me a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken, 'cause his daddy done told him, "Go take this to the guy, the hobo man, and feed him." You know what I'm saying? What he saw was a hungry man, not a black man.

Incidents like that, there have been many of them—I saw individuals, I saw human beings. And that's both liberating and dangerous. So I think, Why not go back to Florida? Obviously, it's a case of mistaken identity. This stuff ain't gonna go away if I just sit here. If I were being pragmatic, I'd have let the states of Mississippi and Florida argue about it, and Florida would have had to prove that they had a reasonable cause to want me back. They didn't have anything except the girl said I did it. But I went back to Florida.

I should have known that something was crazy. It must have been a fifteen-hour car trip, handcuffed, chains on my legs. As we're going into the station, there's somebody out front with a minicam taking pictures. They take me in, fingerprint me, give me my blankets. Get up the next morning and they feed you the stuff they feed you, and I'm watching TV and I see myself coming into the station on TV. After that, they call me out to go into a lineup. I said, "Well, shit, everybody in town knows what I look like now." Sure enough, I go in the lineup with five or six other guys and the girl say, "Yeah, that's that f---er." That was her word. Oh boy, game's afoot now. So they have good cause to keep me. They bind me over, and I'm in Lee County jail waiting to go to trial for rape and murder. Irony abounds. My middle name is Lee and I'm in Lee County Jail. I spend the next nine months there. The first couple of weeks, I don't do anything 'cause I figure they're going to let me out of here, so I don't even bother my family. But that ain't happening. They say, "Hey, shit, you're it."

In a sense, I integrated the jail. This place was kind of like time had passed them by. This is Fort Myers. They do what they want to do down there. My presence there focused so much attention on it. This young woman I'd been involved with for five years, Julie Tyler, started the Delbert Tibbs Defense Committee, and they began raising money for lawyers. Folks started visiting me. A lot of my friends had been movement folks, so there was a lot of scrutiny on the town. They began to kind of get themselves together so they didn't look bad to the rest of the world.

I was slightly bewildered, but I still wasn't worried at all, which was stupid. I should have been. I had reached a stage in consciousness either where something deep in me knew that it ultimately was going to be all right, or where it didn't matter, kind of like Socrates … I'll drink the hemlock, ain't no big thing.

I was locked up for nine months and then the trial. All-white jury. In Chicago, my lawyer, he was with a prestigious law firm, very successful. But Chicago ain't Lee County, Florida. He was intimidated. He was scared, and I don't much blame him, because the judge was quite capable of locking him up too if he displeased him. When he had an objection, the judge would overrule it; when the prosecution had an objection, the judge would sustain it. It was obvious to me what was happening. We had one black person who made it through the peremptory challenges for selection on the jury and then got disqualified at the last minute. I think he said he didn't read or write too good and the judge maybe thought that was enough. You have this arrogant Negro dash nigger, from up North someplace, who tended to look white folks in the eye and who would not let them put words in his mouth. I can't stop myself. I said, "Delbert, they see you as an arrogant, crazy nigger." Actually, I was just being me.

The courtroom was packed. My folks had come from Chicago in large groups, probably every black person in the town had come to the trial because they knew about the brother from Chicago. The .police department have marksmen on the roof because they think that some of these black militants might come down and try to bust me out. After a day and a half, they find me guilty.

At that time there was a moratorium on the death penalty and the judge said, "Well, if the moratorium continues, then you will serve two life sentences consecutively. If not, then you are to be executed by the State of Florida." Before that, there's a presentence investigation, where they check your background to see if you have a criminal record, if there are mitigating factors.

I'll never forget, one of the investigators came to see me after the trial and he asked me, "Delbert, I know you say you dated white girls—did you ever have sex with one?" I'm saying, Why would he ask me that? I'm such a fool. I was inclined to ask him had he ever slept with a black one, but I answered his question, I said, "Yes, I've had sex with white females." He turned as red as your socks and again something said, You fool—you were supposed to say no. So I got sentenced, and then they shipped me off to the Death House. The electric chair is up at a place called Starke. Right next door is Florida State Prison, the regular penitentiary. The max joint is Starke and it's right next door to Raiford, the Big House. That's where the Death House and the electric chair is—Old Sparky, as they call the chair. Sometimes they refer to it as the Iron Lady. A couple of things stuck in my mind. When they got ready to take you from the county jail to the state jail, they always did it in the middle of the night. I remember reading about the camps in Germany, how when they'd come to take people to the gas chambers, they'd come and get you in the middle of the night. It was almost as scary because I didn't know where the hell I was going. For all I knew, they could have took me and executed me then. My rational mind told me they weren't, but it was just scary.

They put you in a van with no windows in it, and you're chained up, I would say maybe ten of us. Some guys are going to one place and some are going to another. I'm going to death row. There's a bench on each side and chains, one around your waist and another one around your feet, so you ain't going nowhere. I remember the guy saying, "Well, you got five over here for Raiford." He comes to me and says, "What's your name?" I said, "Tibbs." He said, "You're to go to the Death House." The moratorium ended. Now the State of Florida's free to execute all the folks they want to. So they take me there and put me in my cell. The food was much better—cons always think about food.

I was there two years, until the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction. In the meantime, the Delbert Tibbs Defense Committee and Miss Julie Tyler, they're working. Pete Seeger did a concert for me. Angela Davis spoke at Operation Push and raised money. I sometimes tell people when I do lectures: If you really want to punish a guy, lock him up on death row for twenty or thirty years. After five years, he'll probably beg you to put him in the chair or strap him to the gurney. I have friends now, like Rolando Cruz, who did eleven years. I said, "Man, you've got to be the strongest man on the planet." Each day, each day … It was getting harder and harder by the time I got out. Each day it was like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain. Tuesday might as well be Wednesday. The only kind of change was on the weekend, when people would come to visit.

I was convinced that they were not going to kill me. I didn't think that they were worthy of my death, to put it in those kind of terms. Somehow, deep down, I knew that that wasn't my fate. But, the reality is, in a sense, they create your reality. I am behind the bars, I have to ask to be let out, they feed me, they turn out the lights when they want to turn out the lights. I don't run anything there.

I had gotten so when I got up out of the bed about seven-thirty in the morning, I would reach for the TV. You automatically turn it on because it was something coming in from out there, and there were people on the TV, right? Then I'd eat breakfast and I'd sit up and watch TV, maybe doze off, go to sleep. At eleven-thirty, they serve lunch. And I would watch TV through lunch. Then some days I'd work out in the cell, do push-ups and sit-ups like most of the guys did. Then you look around and it's four o'clock and they served dinner. Everything was focused around mealtime. Because that was the only pleasant thing in your day, the food. You eat dinner and then you're up until lights-out at eleven o'clock. Turning on the TV was automatic. Before I'd go to bed at night a lot of times I would tie a towel around the knob on the TV, so that when I'd go to hit the knob, the towel would be there and I'd go, "Oh, I didn't mean to turn this image on this morning." It was one way of my taking control of at least that action.

When I meet people now, if they try to make a big deal about me having been on death row, I sometimes gently remind them that we're all on death row. The difference is that here the state's gonna do it, and at some point you're gonna know the date and the hour, but that's the only difference. I mean, if you're walking around here, shit—you're on death row, 'cause you're going to have to leave here. You're going to lay down and they're going to throw dust in your face. They never set a date for me. And I thank God for that.

The Florida Supreme Court finally overturned the conviction. They said that there was no evidence. The jury convicted me and they shouldn't have. The jury convicted me because a white woman said I had raped her. This is the politics: the state appealed the overturning of the conviction. But they had to let me out. They got every pound of flesh they could: they let me out on ninety thousand dollars' bond, so I would come back for the trial. The case was overturned a couple of times. I came to Chicago. In the meantime, the state was gearing up to retry me. At one point, there was a circuit court judge who overturned the whole thing and dismissed it. The state got the case reinstituted.

The case was overturned in 1976, I got out in January of 1977. That should have been the end of it. But the country was moving further and further to the right. Initially, when the sentence was overturned, it was a four-to-three decision. Four justices said we believe he's innocent, three said we believe he's guilty. All seven are very well educated people, why is it that these guys look at the same evidence, the same data, and come to diametrically opposite conclusions? It can't be based on intellect or reason, it has to be based on something else. I suggest to you it's based on that cultural conditioning. To folks of this particular mind-set, I'm guilty because that white woman said I'm guilty. And because I'm a big old black buck.

In 1982, the DA dropped the case. He said his witness wouldn't be credible before a jury because she had lived a life of alcohol and drug abuse and so forth. The girl admitted that she'd been smoking marijuana the day that the crime occurred. It certainly can impair your identification of somebody. The real reason he dropped the case was because, during the interview, the young prosecutor who had sent me to death row had said—this is the crazy part—I had made friends in Fort Myers. One of my white friends was talking to the DA's wife, and she says, "What your husband did to Delbert Tibbs …" The wife said, "What did my husband do?" She said, "They convicted that man on just four Polaroid snapshots." When he came home from work—he'd gone into private practice—she asked if that were true. And he said, yeah, but if he had known at the time, he would not have prosecuted the case. If we had gone to trial, he was going to be the first witness for our side.

I believe life is endless. We can't talk about life without talking about death; we can't talk about death without talking about life. I was listening to the Dalai Lama, I read his autobiography, and he says that Buddhists often meditate on death. That's total anathema to the Western mind, right? I think it has something to do with Greek culture, with its bifurcation of existence—this is life and this is death. I learned to meditate before I went to death row. That's one of the things that helped get me through, but it was very difficult. Otherwise, I read mostly, as much as I could. I can go home with a good book today and I'll spend the whole day reading it. On death row, I couldn't focus my mind on anything. I couldn't lose consciousness of my environment for more than forty-five minutes. If I did, I would find myself getting up, pacing, looking out of the bars. I remember saying to one of my homies who was executed by the State of Florida, I'd say, "Hey, Shango, I believe there are spooks in this goddamn place." He'd say, "Well, if there's any such thing, Brother Tibbs, this is the place for it."

What I've discovered is: All of the holy books are marvelous, absolutely so, including the Bible. The Bible has the most beautiful language of any book I have ever read. Not to mention the fact that there's something there. God is there. But I really do believe He's hidden. I believe the Jewish mystics who went into the kabala know that. I sometimes wish I spoke Hebrew because the words might not be the thing itself but they can lead to it. The Bhagavad Gita is the bible to three hundred million Indians and others who are not Indians. Thoreau and Emerson read it. Krishna says there never was a time when you and I did not exist, and there will never be a time when we cease to be. He said, "This body wears out, like garments, and when a garment wears out, you take it off and you lay it down, and you pick up another one and put it on."

One of the terrible things about executions is to jump people off into the universe like that. I think for a soul to be wrenched from the body is for that soul to be in anger and in pain and in hatred. I believe it impacts negatively on our world, that probably a lot of the calamities that happen are a result of that sort of thing. I mourn for the whole world because it's such a horrible place so often.

Reprinted with permission from The New Press.

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Voices on the Radio

was a radio personality and author who published 20 books on central themes and events in American life. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 oral history of World War II, The Good War. He died on October 31, 2008.

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