“It’s important that the kids know what has happened in the past.”
Brooklyn Nets’ forward Garrett Temple was just six years old when Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan was exonerated in the death of Ronda Morrison in 1993.
McMillan, a Black business owner, was arrested in June of 1987 for the murder of Ronda Morrison, a white dry cleaning clerk. Immediately upon his arrest McMillan was sent, illegally, to Alabama's Death Row, in Holman State Prison, Atmore, to await his trial.
In a series of twisted events, police, prosecutors and judges obstructed justice, coerced testimony, and concealed evidence all in the name of convicting McMillan.
It wasn’t until Harvard Law educated Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama, took an interest in the case that justice was eventually served.
Stevenson’s story and his work with McMillan and the EJI are the focal points of his book Just Mercy, which has been adapted into a major motion picture starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, and Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx as McMillan.
A movie theater in the Cobble Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, on a cold Friday afternoon (January 17) is where I find Temple. He had seen the movie three weeks prior, but it really resonated with him. So much so that he connected with Bryan Stevenson to hear more of his story.
If you know anything about Temple, a story like Stevenson’s and McMillan’s hits different.
Temple is the son of Collis Temple Jr., the first Black player to integrate Louisiana State University’s basketball team in 1971.
He is the grandson of Collis Temple Sr., who was rejected by LSU’s Masters program in 1955 because of his race. The only way the elder Temple was able to obtain an advanced degree was because of a class action suit filed by, then executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall.
If you grow up on stories like that, it’s impossible for miscarriages of justice to not make you feel a certain type of way.
After a special screening of the movie and conversation with local high school students affiliated with My Brother’s Keeper, The Boys and Girls Club, and the NYPD Foundation, Temple talked about the importance of shedding light on issues that have plagued the Black community for centuries.
“I saw the movie three weeks ago,” Temple told BET. “The situation happened in the early '90s, and that was 20-30 years ago. It’s important that the kids know what has happened in the past. But at the same time, hearing them talk, you know and they know a lot of that same stuff is happening today. Whether it’s Black History Month coming up or not. It’s a movie that needs to be seen by the younger generation so we can remember and honestly understand. Get that awareness of the judicial system and the flaws that are there.”
This isn’t Temple’s first foray into the community to address systemic issues that negatively impact Black people.
When he was a member of the Sacramento Kings (2016-2018), the local community was rocked by the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Black man Stephon Clark by two Sacramento Police Department officers on March 18, 2018
Temple, already active with the local high school, was instrumental in having the Kings partner with Black Lives Matter Sacramento. He also facilitated formal town halls with law-enforcement officers and the Black community.
More of a consensus builder than radical, Temple is prone to look at root causes when dealing with complex issues.
“You have to have laws. I’m not an anarchist. But I think back to the foundation of our country and the things that have happened,” he continued. “When you think back to where police came from, they were slave catchers. They were there to protect your property. Who and what were property back then? It’s tough to get away from the foundation of a country unless you make big, radical changes. Some change has been made. But a lot more still needs to be done. When I finish playing, maybe I can help with that change.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, more than 165 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated. The rate of error in death penalty convictions is alarming, if not surprisingly high. For every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated.
Changing a monolith like the criminal justice system and its roots in racism is daunting, to say the least. But it's not trying and hopelessness that is the enemy. It’s cliché, but if everyone does their part, things can and often do change.
For his part, Garrett Temple knows he can and wants to do more with the platform he has been given. The LSU alumnus is in his 10th NBA season and has made approximately $30 million in career earnings. That type of financial security, “God willing,'' he says might allow him to work on change from the inside. He’s seriously considering going to law school when his playing career is over.
“I don’t know what type of law I would practice, if I were to practice law,” he said. “Sometimes I think, maybe just get the degree to acquire the knowledge. Maybe become a prosecutor, because of the power they have to influence and shape lives. Or become a defense attorney for that same reason. Taking care of the money that I’ve made playing, I wouldn’t have the same constraints as other lawyers. That would allow me to do this for the right reasons.”
Like the film Just Mercy, Garrett Temple’s efforts are a reminder in a time when hopelessness threatens to derail human existence, that the work can and must continue for all of us.