If you have never heard of a man named Hector Black, from Cookeville, Tennessee, I hope you will continue to read this. Hector died on August 20, 2020, at age 95. Born in New York City, he served in the Army in World War II. After the war he studied at Harvard, and began to attend Quaker meetings, being attracted by their non-violent creed. He and his wife became involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and moved to Atlanta in 1965 with their three daughters, where they protested for racial justice alongside Martin Luther King Jr. While in Atlanta, they also adopted two more daughters, making a family with five children, all girls.
His dedication to non-violence faced a severe test many years later, when in 2000, one of his adopted daughters, Patricia Knuckles, was raped and murdered in her Atlanta home. Despite never believing in the death penalty, Hector wanted the man responsible for the crime, Ivan Simpson, “to hurt the way he had hurt her.” But at the trial, he was able to look Ivan in the eye and tell him that, although he did “hate with all my soul what you did to my daughter,” he did not hate him. It was in the act of looking into Ivan’s eyes at the trial that Hector was able to forgive him. A short time later, Hector began a multi-year written correspondence with Ivan, and he and his wife visited Ivan in prison on several occasions.
Telling a Story…
Two years ago, I was hired to voice some of Hector’s letters – written to Ivan in prison between 2001 and 2018 – for a media company that was working on a documentary about his life. The voiceover in the actual film was to be by Hector himself, but the production team needed some working material as they developed the story, and they hired me to do the reads.
I knew from preparing for the audition, of course, the general contour of Hector’s story. But by being immersed in the volume of his letters, and knowing his backstory more fully, I reached a deeper level of understanding and admiration for the man. After he and Ivan met in court, Hector felt “as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from me and that I had forgiven him.” And in the course of their correspondence, each man expressed gratitude to the other that they were able to both give and receive forgiveness.
…and Learning from It
I doubt that I would be able to respond as Hector did, if such a thing happened to me. Probably very few of us would. Nevertheless, I believe that knowing his story, voicing his words in that narration job, and thereby understanding his journey more fully, might have made me a slightly better person. And I believe that Hector’s story could have a similarly beneficent effect on others. So I recommend it to any one of you who may perceive, as I do, a yawning deficit of empathy, compassion, understanding and forgiveness in our nation’s public life today, as a balm to you personally, and to us collectively. You can hear him tell his story on a @StoryCorps podcast, and see him telling it on stage at @TheMoth.