Reading the Book “The Sun Does Shine”: What Educational Leaders and Educators Can Learn from a Former Death Row Inmate

“You don’t have to be locked up to occupy your mind and your days trying to rewrite a painful past or undo a terrible tragedy or make right a horrible wrong. But pain and tragedy and injustice happen–they happen to us all. I’d like to believe it’s what you choose to do after such an experience that matters the most–that truly changes your life forever.” Anthony Ray Hinton, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row

Anthony Ray Hinton’s book The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row is a emotionally riveting and reader-disturbing tale that every educator should read this summer. In it, Hinton tells the story of his life on death row in Alabama for the crime of murder that he did not commit. He was clearly convicted due to a racist justice system in which both law enforcement, district attorneys, and judges found him guilty of murder because of his skin color and because he was a convenient suspect. What’s more, this wasn’t something that occurred in the 1950s or 1960s. Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death row in the 1980s.

The real value of this book besides its portrait of a racism that is very much part of our country’s fabric lies in the wisdom that Hinton shares throughout. It is clear that through the injustice he experienced, he has a lot to say that we should give attention to. For example, nowhere does Hinton capture both the injustice of his experience and what he learned than when he writes:

“My only crime was being born black, or being born black in Alabama. Everywhere I looked in this courtroom, I saw white faces–a sea of white faces. Wood walls, wood furniture, and white faces. The courtroom was impressive and intimidating. I felt like an uninvited guest in a rich man’s library, It’s hard to explain exactly what it feels like to be judged. There’s a shame to it. Even when you know you’re innocent. It still feels like you are coated in something dirty and evil. It made me feel guilty. It made me feel like my very soul was put on trial and found lacking. When it seems like the whole world thinks you’re bad, it’s hard to hang on to your goodness.”

Elsewhere, Hinton shares additional wisdom about the experience of being Black in America:

“Innocent men don’t run. Except sometimes innocent men need to run. This is true in Alabama and everywhere. If you’re poor and black, sometimes your best and only chance is to run.”

And:

“There was no good end to the running in my mind, but there were nights when it seemed like dying on the pavement would have been a whole lot easier than proving my innocence in a courtroom. I shouldn’t have had to prove I was innocent–they were supposed to prove I was guilty–but not in this courtroom.” 

Hinton’s book offers readers one man’s experience of what happens when the very institutions that are supposed to ensure justice and fairness align to carry out an injustice. It is this story that reminds us that the institutions we lead can be capable of the same.

Statements like this rightfully disturb our beliefs in what we often see as an infallible system of justice and government. It convicts us of often having a blind faith in our institutions and how it deals with citizens. Hinton’s story loudly proclaims that the fight for making sure our institutions are just and fair is far from over. After all, Hinton was released in 2015, just about 3 years ago. In the story he tells, it took him 30 years to avoid execution and prove his innocence, when it was clear from the beginning to the system that convicted him that he was innocent.

Why should educators and school leaders read this one? We should read this book because much of the literature sold to us is about methodologies, technologies, and leadership strategies. If we simply only read that stuff, we forget that our institutions are still engaged in effectively providing opportunities for people, and that our institutions of education, like our justice system, can and does still act in ways that are unjust and unfair. By reading Hinton’s story, not only do you learn from a very wise individual who shares what he learned from personal injustice, you also find your own personal faith in our institutions disturbed enough to realize they still get things wrong. Leadership is recognizing that both we and the institutions we lead still exist in contexts culturally and historically constituted, and that means, no matter our intentions, they still act in unjust ways.

As a side not, I am firmly convinced that being an effective leader is more than reading John Maxwell books, applying the tenets of leadership gurus like Stephen R. Cover, and the many other ideas and programs peddled in the leadership industry these days. Being an effective leader means encountering the uncomfortable—the disturbing—so that we find ourselves off-balance. In this state of being off-balance we discover that the world we thought we had figured out isn’t really what we thought it was and that perhaps we can’t really see things with the level of certainty our leadership gurus tell us we can. Therein lies the value in Hinton’s book The Sun Does Shine. It effectively disturbs our world—especially the world of this white male who often sees things through that lens of privilege and culture. Anthony Ray Hinton’s story of spending 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit is one every educational leader should read.