Tonight we mourn the passing of one of our most treasured leaders in the movement to end the death penalty, our dear friend Martina Davis Correia. In her struggle to save the life of her brother Troy Anthony Davis, Martina inspired thousands of people around the world to join the struggle to end capital punishment.
Over the last several years, Troy Davis's case dominated and defined public debate about the death penalty in the United States. It raised questions about the many problems within our criminal justice system, such as police and prosecutorial misconduct, the unreliability of eyewitness-based evidence and the obstacles and impossibilities a person on death row must overcome to attempt to raise issues of innocence. Problems with the U.S. system of capital punishment did not begin with Troy Davis, and they will not end with his death. Before he was executed in Georgia on September 21, 2011, Troy called on all of us to continue fighting for justice.
Martina Davis Correia waged a 22-year-long battle for justice for her brother. She led an international campaign to save her brother’s life and prove his innocence. She was the voice for Troy and their family and led an international chorus in singing, “I AM TROY DAVIS.” For her tireless advocacy on behalf of all people on Death Rows, the Southern Center for Human Rights recognized Martina in 2009 with the prestigious Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award.
Martina balanced her struggle for her brother’s life and against the death penalty with fighting her own personal daily battle with breast cancer that threatened her life for more than a decade. She was not only a leader in the anti-death penalty community, she was also at the helm of the National Black Leadership Initiative on Cancer. She focused her work on prevention, education and cultural barriers to eradicate cancer in communities of color. Many times over the years I would be on a conference call with Martina only to find out midway through the call that she was simultaneously receiving chemotherapy while fully participating in our discussion.
But with Martina, it’s was not only what work she did; it’s how she did it. Martina led this movement by demonstrating an unshakable commitment to ending the death penalty. She is unparalleled in her determination.
Martina never backed away from telling the truth- especially with regard to race in the south. She told the stories beyond the statistics (that Savannah comes in second in incarceration rate in Georgia, yet only 8th in population). She described the trees covered in spanish moss in Savannah, how beautiful they are to look at, but how if those trees could talk what an ugly story they would tell about the "strange fruit" - lynched bodies of black men - that once hung there. With her own courage she inspired members of her community in Savannah to take a stand. The act of signing a petition for Troy was incredibly brave for many of Savannah’s most poverty-stricken, disenfranchised residents who knew that police retaliation was more than a mere possibility.
Martina did what she did for the generations to come. No other case has mobilized more grassroots opposition of the death penalty in recent years than Troy Davis’s, and Martina travelled the world to make it so. We can count so many new young people among our ranks because Martina took the time to get to know them, talk with them and held their hands as they joined this movement.
Martina even activated her own family, in particular her sister Kim Davis and her son, Dejaun Correia. Dejaun is already an accomplished human-rights activist at 17 years old, speaking front and center on behalf of their family in the years, months and days leading up to Troy’s execution.
We will never forget Virginia Davis, the wonderful matriarch of the Davis family who passed earlier this year. I remember Ms. Virginia in the early days, shyly standing back while Martina would be testifying at a podium. Before she left this world, we had the incredible privilege to see Ms. Virginia at the mic herself speaking truth to power about the death penalty – occasionally allowing her fist to fly up in the air.
Martina’s focus was always bigger than her brother’s case. Martina never lost sight of the lives and the families of all people in prison and on death rows. During one of the times Troy was within two weeks of execution, Martina took the time to call me to check in about a mutual friend of ours who recently went back to prison. She wanted to know if his wife and kids were okay and what address could she send a grocery store gift card to help them out during their difficult time.
This was just one of the many, many times I felt so blessed to know and work with someone as extraordinary as Martina. She informed and guided my work at the Southern Center for Human Rights for over ten years. I could always rely on her to direct me to the issues that were most deeply impacting the lives of people in prison and their families, whether it was the exorbitant fees charged to people inside the prisons who were seeking medical attention, to abuses by corrections officers at visitation. She kept these families and their struggles in her heart always- every time she spoke to an audience about her brother’s case, she would invoke them.
As I imagine a world without our dear sister, I know this much is true:
Martina’s heart was bigger than Georgia;
Her faith dwarfed Death Row;
And her hope and commitment are enough to sustain and drive us all to do more, to keep our eyes on the prize and to work for justice and peace for our communities on both sides of the prison walls.
In Martina, Troy, and Virginia’s names, today I hope we all rededicate our lives to end this death penalty, in Georgia, across the nation, and around the world.
Martina, THANK YOU. Presente!
Sara J. Totonchi is the Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.