Friday, February 20, 2009

Ragtime Reverend, Round II

When was the last time you invited a complete stranger into your house? What about asking someone you don’t really know to live with you? Give yourself a point for each roommate and exchange student. Now the bonus round: think back and try to recall the last time you arranged for an inmate to be released from prison so they could live in your home with your wife and kids. Yeah, me either.

I wrote about ‘Ragtime Reverend’ Lynn Wright last column, and if you missed that episode, Lynn described what it was like to grow up in the south, hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak and then have the KKK call up and threaten his family after writing a letter to the editor saying Dr. King might be onto something. So. Lynn grows up to become a minister in Wyoming and along the way, he becomes reacquainted with the words of Martin Luther King and when he says they made a big impact on him, I think you will agree he was not exaggerating.

Lynn learned of a case in Alabama where James Frank, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the armed robbery of a store. Robbery is bad news, for sure. Armed is even badder. But many people thought a life sentence to be excessive, including Lynn. So he wrote to Mr. Frank in prison and they began a correspondence that convinced Lynn this man did not deserve to be locked up the rest of his life. He paid a visit to the prison. Even took his wife and two sons with him. Wrote letters to the parole board and eventually flew down to attend a parole hearing, where he was met by twenty-some people from a local church who were there for support.

The hearing wasn’t going well. The parole board countered Lynn’s arguments for release by pointing to a stack of letters requesting that James Frank remain in prison. Lynn remembers becoming agitated by questions as to why an outsider like himself would want to come there and meddle in something that was none of his concern. He said it sounded awfully familiar to what he heard as a boy when Dr. Martin Luther King was advocating civil rights and being told it was none of his affair.

Lynn describes himself as even-tempered, to a point. And then not so even. And just as he was reaching that point, he felt a tug on his sleeve and an older black man, who was among the church members who showed up, asked to say a few words.

Lynn sat down and let someone else do the talking. The parole board began to relent, a little bit. But they said, no, they still would never release this man in the state of Alabama. And that was that. Except Lynn now had something to say again, and it was that James Frank was welcome to come live with him and his family on their ranch in Wyoming.

And that’s what happened. A release date was set for two months in the future, provided he leave the state and reside in Wyoming. After the hearing, Lynn thanked the man who had stepped in and turned things around and asked who he was. He said he was the pastor of a church just down the street. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The same church, incidentally, where Martin Luther King had been a pastor. That would be the same Martin Luther King who inspired Lynn to try to get James Frank out of prison in the first place. I was on the phone with Lynn this morning, going over some details and he apologized at this point, saying he gets a little emotional when he thinks about that part. I said that was all right.

James Frank came to Wyoming, lived and worked on the Wright family ranch for several years, hired out to work on other ranches in the area and got along great in the community. Enrolled in a community college and majored in drama. Graduated. Made the most of his get-out-of-jail card.

But he did miss home and very much wanted to go back when mother became ill. That also happened. After more legal wrangling, James Frank was allowed to return to Alabama, took care of his mom and became a popular radio disc jockey.


After we talked on the phone this morning and Lynn recounted the story of struggling to get an inmate released from prison and welcoming him into his family, Lynn paused and very graciously thanked me again for my hospitality months ago when I let him park his RV in my driveway for a night and poured him some coffee the next morning. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, as my definition of what constitutes hospitality has been somewhat stretched recently.