We waited for the American flag-draped coffin of Moreese Bickham to be carried to the late-model hearse parked outside Washington Funeral Home. With our lights and emergency flashers on, we were the first car behind the hearse. This was also the first time in the past 20 years that I wouldn’t be driving Mister Bickham. This morning I would be following him, through Tylertown, MS, the town of his birth, down MS 27 South, past Dillon’s Bridge, where, as the grandson of former slaves Tom and Ellen Simmons, he played as a young boy with the other children of sharecroppers.
But for the moment, nobody was moving. The funeral procession was delayed; we were waiting for the sheriff’s deputy to escort Mister Bickham, a World War II Navy veteran, through downtown Tylertown to his final resting place. The irony of waiting for the deputy’s car this morning was not lost on me.
Moreese Bickham was no stranger to waiting. He waited almost 40 years for freedom. Fourteen of those years he sat alone in a six-by-eight foot cell, only a few yards from the electric chair, while the state of Louisiana scheduled seven execution dates.
Mister Bickham escaped those dates in the Death House when, on June 29, 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 30 states and the District of Columbia in a decision called Furman v. Georgia. His death sentence was commuted to life and in Louisiana, a life term meant just that: life. The only way Moreese Bickham would leave the penitentiary in Angola, would be in a pine box – a burial at Point Look-Out, the prison cemetery.
But that was not part of his plan.
“I won’t be buried at Point Look-Out. See, if you buried out there, you really forgotten. Nobody come out to visit, nobody even passes by Boot Hill,” Bickham told a reporter in 1980. That was the year he began making payments to buy a plot so that he could be buried next to his mother, Josie Simmons.
Moreese Bickham went to Louisiana’s Death Row in 1958 for the murder of two sheriff’s deputies who came to his home, in a private car, in the early morning hours of July 12 to “investigate” a bar fight earlier that evening at Buck’s, a blacks-only bar, in Mandeville, LA. The two officers were reported to have had Klan robes in the car’s trunk. Bickham held up his hands in surrender and he says one of the officers shot him in the chest. He hit the ground, grabbed his shotgun and returned fire, killing both deputies.
Mister Bickham spent the next 38 years planning for his future: he tended the prison garden, worked in the prison kitchen as a cook and received his GED. He read his Bible daily, was ordained as a Methodist minister and received his certification as an auto mechanic.
He was a patient man who said he never believed he’d die inside. He spent the years getting ready for a life in the Free World. Moreese Bickham was a planner.
On January 10, 1996, Moreese Bickham walked out of prison as a free man. He had accumulated so much “good time credit” from his 13,695 days behind bars that his sentence of life automatically expired. The wait to die was over. For the next 20 years, Mister Bickham lived.
When we met in April 1996, Mister Bickham didn’t have a driver’s license. He hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car in 38 years. He stopped driving in 1958, the year he went to prison. On that sunny morning in Oakland, CA, this old black man raced to the car I rented and opened my door. A true Southern gentlemen, he tipped his black felt hat and walked around to the passenger’s side. He put on his seat belt and didn’t speak until I was buckled in. That was our ritual – no talking until my seat belt clicked. And then for the next two decades Mister Bickham didn’t stop talking. He had a lot to say and he wanted to make sure I was listening.
We talked a lot. To each other and to thousands of people across the United States. We spoke at universities, at anti-death penalty conferences, book clubs and rotary clubs. We traveled across the country –Washington, D.C., Portland, OR, Williamsburg, VA., San Antonio, The Texas State Capitol in Austin and up and down the coast of California.
I wrote a book about people like Moreese Bickham who were on death row and later released because of the Supreme Court ruling in Furman. But no one was like Mister Bickham. I spoke about second chances and rehabilitation; Moreese spoke about forgiveness and hope. In every speech, he always described the many years behind bars “as a glorious experience” because, he said, it slowed down a life that was “too fast” and that he was sure would have led to an early death.
Mister Bickham and I were also fishing buddies. During those trips across the country we always managed to find a place to throw in a line: the Blanco River, the lake at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and Los Padres National Forest in California.
In the summer of 2008, I joined Mister Bickham on his return to Tylertown, MS. We visited his burial plot and he stopped by the mortuary to make sure his funeral and burial arrangements were in order.
A few months later, I went with him to the headquarters of the Democrat party, in his then hometown of Klamath Falls, Ore., to make sure he was registered to vote. He was and proudly cast his ballot for the first African-American president of the U.S. He told me then that he’d never thought he’d live to see that day. On Jan. 20, 2009 we watched this historic inauguration together in Portland, Ore. When I checked in on him that morning, to make sure he wasn’t sleeping through the pre-inauguration festivities, the TV was on but Moreese Bickham wasn’t watching. He was kneeling beside his bed, his head bowed in prayer. He held his Bible in one hand and with the other he wiped away tears.
I, too was overcome with emotion. To be able to celebrate this inauguration day with Moreese Bickham. From Jim Crow to Death Row. And now the inauguration of the first African-American president.
The last time we spoke was in early March. Mister Bickham was in the hospital with a respiratory infection. I reminded him that he told me he’d hang in there until he saw the election of the first female president. She had been his first choice in 2008, but he was still proud and excited to cast his ballot for Barack Obama.
“Hillary needs you Mister Bickham. You have got to get well. She really needs you.” I heard the laughter through his wheezing. “Okay, girl. I remember. Okay.”
He died a month later.
Until last week, Moreese Bickham, 98, had been the oldest survivor of the death penalty in America.
This morning, parked outside of Washington Funeral Home, was the first time I wasn’t driving Mister Bickham.
Instead, I was following him home.
Featured image: The gravestone of Moreese Bickham in Tylertown, MS. Photo courtesy of Joan Cheever