Speeches from 2007 CEDP national convention

The fight for Kenneth Foster

By: KENNETH FOSTER SR. AND BRYAN McCANN

Kenneth Foster Jr. was scheduled to die on August 30, 2007 in Texas. He came within six hours of being executed before Gov. Rick Perry granted his appeal for clemency.

 Kenneth had been sent to death row even though he never killed anyone. But because Kenneth was the driver of a car that carried the man who committed a murder, under Texas’ “Law of Parties,” Kenneth was charged with capital murder. A struggle that involved Kenneth’s family members along with anti-death penalty activists put pressure on Perry that he couldn’t ignore, and he commuted Kenneth’s sentence.

The CEDP convention heard speeches from Kenneth’s father, Kenneth Foster Sr., and Bryan McCann, a member of the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a leading activist in the struggle for Kenneth.  

Bryan McCann

This was a huge victory, and importantly, even lawyers--who you know are not typically fond of activists--will be the first to admit that it was the movement around this case that saved the life of Kenneth Foster. Not legal maneuvering, not political lobbying, but organizing in the streets, acts of civil disobedience, putting Nydesha Foster [Kenneth’s daughter] out there, and speaking to the humanity of a man like Kenneth Foster and to the politics of a man like Kenneth Foster. 

Texas said, “Death row,” and we, in no uncertain terms, said “Hell no!” in Texas. And at the heart of our movement wasn’t only the activists, but the family of Kenneth Foster and Kenneth himself. 

Kenneth managed to organize, along with people like Rob Will and Gabrielle Gonzalez, the men on Texas’s death row to stage nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, and to reach out to people on the outside to help them organize against these conditions. 

It was Kenneth’s bravery and his depth of analysis about the capital punishment system in Texas that initially drew the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to him. But in addition to Kenneth’s bravery was also the bravery of his family. Nydesha Foster, Lawrence Foster, and his father, Kenneth Foster Sr., were bold in putting themselves on the line, always being the first to speak to the media and at rallies. 

In the words of Katie Feyh, one of our chapter member in Texas, this was a case in which activists became family and family became activists. It was a life-altering, life-changing experience that taught us a lot about politics, but also taught us a lot about ourselves. 

It is in that spirit that I want to introduce our next speaker, a man who bravely stepped up for his son in no uncertain terms and would not step back until he saved the life of his son. It is my deep honor to introduce to you the father of Kenneth Foster, Kenneth Foster Sr.  

Kenneth Foster Sr.

Thank you. It is an honor to be here. This is my first trip here, and I couldn’t wait to get here. And I see we have some wonderful people from all over. 

I just first want to say that I am Kenneth Foster Sr., the father of Kenneth Foster Jr., whose sentence was commuted from death to life by the governor on August 30 of this year. Kenneth sent me some words to present to you all. 

Before I do, I want to say that we educate one another. Believe me, I’ve been educated this morning. I want this thing to spread. I want it to spread to where you’re sitting in your home, or if you’re in Wal-Mart, or if you’re in Dillard’s, or wherever you are you, and you’re looking at the news on the TV, and they say, “Well, we are seeking the death penalty.” What do you here say? “Hell no!” I don’t care where you’re at, say, “Hell no!” 

I’m serious. I am serious about this, that we want this to connect not just in Texas but throughout the United States and the world. We want it to connect, and I would like for everybody to honestly take that to heart. Let’s kick that off from this moment on, because the killing has to stop. It is just legalized murder. 

But I am going to start with Kenneth. He couldn’t be here. He would like to have been here, but I am going to read his words that he had for everybody to hear:  

“A solidarity message to the CEDP: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those were the words of my close friend, John Amador, as he was strapped to the gurney and filled with poison on August the 29th. Keep in mind that Kenneth was scheduled to be executed the following day, merely hours later. I would find myself dragged into the same catacomb by men who seem to do this without thought or emotion. 

“Lying on the floor, wrists bruised by the metal cuffs digging deep down into my flesh, I could only think of the two men that Texas had just murdered, and not of myself. Sickness and disdain rose in my stomach. If we, the condemned, are animals, then what are those who carry out the executions? 

“These are just a few thoughts that I had as I came within six hours of my own state-sanctioned murder. I have repeatedly tried to write my thoughts down about that day. Each time, I find a new detail and maybe leave one out. I explore it. I try to remember the smells, the dim lights, the Bible--no other religious books, mind you. 

“I think about how I wanted to spit on the execution chamber door as I walked out, but I didn’t. I tried to remember how the sky looked when I came out of the Walls Unit, a liberated man from death row. It’s there, deep inside like lava in a volcano, steaming and bubbling under the surface. 

“I share these thoughts with you because they are no longer private. This is my choice, though, because when I embrace struggle, my life became walking history. As Howard Zinn said, history can help our struggles if not conclusively, then at least suggestively. “And what my history suggests, once again, as Zinn said, is that people when organized have enormous power--more than any government, as was demonstrated by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty from May 30 to August 30 of this year. No other organization did what they did. No other group in Texas took it to the level they did. 

“What does this say about the Campaign? It means we are dealing with a new, high-caliber activist group, one that understands that actions must not only be organized, but also concerted and aggressive. The CEDP realizes that it is going to take more than candle-holding to abolish the death penalty. And while I have one of the strongest spiritual foundations that you can imagine, remember that faith without works is dead. 

“I guess we should anticipate that the Texas politicians have lost their damned minds, and we need to combat them with vigor and visions. Because as James Baldwin said, “Without vision the people perish.” But we did not perish. In fact, in my case, 7,285 people petitioned Texas with dissent and disapproval. 

“That’s what we are asking of you today--to help the anti-death penalty movement, be it by a donation, a petition or lending a helping hand. We cannot to expect fantasy miracles. 

“Miracles are the manifestations of movements, and I am here as a living testimony that either we are going to move or die. It’s up to us to change. No more talk, no more stagnation, no more passivity.”  

Those were special words from my son Kenneth to all of you. I know we all understand this thing is much bigger than Kenneth Foster. This thing goes on and on and on. We have to continue to fight.