‘Dead Man Walking’ author gives rousing speech at rally
by Mick Walsh
Sister Helen Prejean on Saturday kept a promise she made to fellow Louisianian Roy Bourgeois 13 years ago: She took part in the annual SOA Watch demonstration outside the gates of Fort Benning.
Sister Helen, a staunch opponent of the death penalty and author of “Dead Man Walking,” was on a walk of her own — from Florida’s death house in Starke to Georgia’s in Jackson — the very weekend in 1990 when the first protest against the School of the Americas was conducted.
“I told him I’d try to make the next one,” she said Saturday, soon after delivering a rousing 10-minute speech to a crowd ranging from college students to World War II veterans. “But the opportunity simply didn’t exist until now.”
The 64-year-old Roman Catholic nun, who is based in New Orleans but whose stage is the world, condemned the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, calling it “a killing machine” and comparing it to government-sanctioned executions.
“I’m a critic of the death penalty,” she said, her voice a bit rough after having to shout her speech over piped-in noise from Fort Benning, “but I don’t prioritize my objections. If I perceive something as injustice, I address it.”
During her speech, she quoted from a letter by actress Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Helen in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking” and who won a Best Actress Oscar for the portrayal.
“I am Susan Sarandon,” laughed the nun, “and she’s me. The only way you can tell us apart is by our wardrobes.” Sister Helen was dressed in faded jeans, a pink sweatshirt and a crucifix hanging from her neck.
The diminutive sister, who began her prison ministry in 1981, may have a following as big as Sarandon’s.
“I came all the way down from Atlanta just to get my picture made with Sister Helen,” said college student Sean Massey. And he did. Many old friends from New Orleans and its Loyola University were in the audience.
She passed out hugs and autographs to anyone who asked.
“I just love this crowd of people,” she said, looking down Benning Road.
“You know, these people get it. You can feel it. They know what is important in life. They know the truth when they hear it, and they’re prepared to act on it. I’m particularly heartened to see so many young people here.”
The tireless nun, who is wrapping up her second book, showed she was nifty on her feet, clapping and tapping as the hip hop group Kuuma Lynx performed on the stage. This came just two days after she traveled from her home to the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana to visit death row inmates.
“I really don’t have much free time at all anymore,” she said. “My speaking engagements are booked a year in advance. But I’m certainly happy I was able to come down here this weekend and lend my voice to the real heroes of this movement, the men and women who suffered so much abuse from soldiers trained at this school.”