A hell-raiser against injustice


Credit: Noreen McNulty
Darby Tillis (right) with Gloria Johnson, the mother of pardoned former death row inmate Montell Johnson
By: Noreen McNulty
Socialist Worker
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Darby Tillis defies an easy tribute. A dear friend, confidant and mentor to many. An activist and hell-raiser against injustice. A minister and street preacher, a friend to strangers. A father, brother, uncle, cousin, husband. A musician and mean harmonica player. A wisecracker, storyteller and word-crafter.

I worked for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's national office in the early 2000s. I had met Darby a few years earlier, running the streets of Philadelphia to protest the death sentence and imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal. While working for the CEDP, Darby was a frequent visitor to our office in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. As the office administrator, I worked side by side with Darby, and he became a mentor and friend.

Darby was a leader to the death penalty movement. He was not afraid to speak honestly about the racism and corruption of the system. He laid out the effect that the system had on the minds and souls of people who were incarcerated, and on the family and friends who loved those people.

He fought. He fought his own demons brought on by what the injustice did to him. He fought the demons of the racist criminal justice system. He walked. And he marched. He marched in Chicago, Texas, Washington, D.C., New York and California. He spoke to anti-death penalty forums, to churches, to high school and college students, to demonstrations and conferences--anywhere people would listen.

Darby traveled all over, whenever and wherever he was needed--from the 1990s and protesting for Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia, through the early 2000s and the fight for a moratorium on executions in Illinois, to Texas to challenge the machinery of death for Shaka Sankofa, to California for Stan "Tookie" Williams, to Georgia for Troy Davis, and many places in between. In Chicago, where Darby made his home for many years, he was a tireless activist for the men who remained on Illinois' death row and for the victims of police torture at the hand of Jon Burge.

Joan Parkin, who was an organizer with the CEDP, paints a vivid picture of the effect that Darby had on a crowd:

"My most memorable Darby moment was when he entered a packed theater in Hyde Park, fully shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit. When he got to the microphone, he said, 'So long as my wrongfully convicted brothers are still locked up, I will never be free.' No one could wake up a crowd like Darby Tillis. He had that unique ability to channel all the hate and rage he had against Illinois' corrupt criminal injustice system, one that had railroaded him to death row, into a passionate, inspirational message that helped lead the movement to the abolition of Illinois death penalty."

Julien Ball also worked with the CEDP and remembered this about Darby:

"Darby was one of the inspirations for my activism. If someone who had been through what he had could keep going day after day, then so could I. And in a strange way, I knew he felt the same way about me. 'Here's a guy who'll probably never see the back of a squad car, and he's standing right there with me,' he would say. That was one of the great things about Darby--he was in solidarity with people from all different kinds of backgrounds.

He showed such concern for the struggles and the pain of prisoners' family members who would come around the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. And he gave them hope. Many of them kept coming because they felt that if he was standing here, outside of prison walls, their loved ones might someday, too."

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When I first got to know Darby, I remember being struck by his dress--he was the other Man in Black. Cowboy boots, sometimes a cape, suit jacket, the occasional Dashiki. The only time I saw him not in black was when he was dressed in the orange jumpsuit, like prisoners wear, at demonstrations and when he performed.

Besides the attire, Darby always had a bible, a harmonica and a very thick, bust-at-the-seams phonebook, with tiny pages and bigger pages, all tied together. He'd use that to find you. If he couldn't find you or didn't hear back from you, he would hunt you down until he did, just to know you were alright.

Darby lived a healthy lifestyle, despite his keeping hours of staying up at night and sleeping through the day. He didn't drink or smoke, and he ate healthy. While I admired his habits, I had to ban his raw garlic from the CEDP office.

He would come to see me at the office, hang out and snooze in the chair, and then we would eventually go to get coffee. He always knew someone on the way. At times, traveling with him in Washington, D.C. or some other city, or some neighborhood in Chicago, you would hear "Darby!" That meant you would be late for wherever you were going, because he inevitably ran into someone he knew and would give them his undivided attention.

He knew and touched more people than most of us will ever know. If you ever met Darby, you would feel like you were special and never be forgotten. And you probably never were.

Here's one example: He was traveling across country--always on the road, he tried never to fly. He met a woman and her young son--their car had broken down, they weren't from the area, and they had no money. They had found a mechanic to fix the car, but he was going to charge them an arm and a leg. Darby went to the mechanic and negotiated a deal. He was like that: a friend to strangers--in fact that was the name of his ministry.

Darby was always cooking up ideas for the next bus or limo or van that he would fix up to tour the country--to speak about the death penalty and the racist criminal justice system, and to minister to all those he met on the way. And if it wasn't a mode of transportation he was scheming about, he was writing songs, plays and speeches to reach people. Darby was a craftsman with words. He could turn a phrase or write a lyric that expressed so much.

Darby Tillis was truly a giant. I'm proud and honored and so grateful to have worked side by side with him in the CEDP. And as a friend, I will never forget his belly laugh, his snicker, his grin, his side-eye--or his compassion and love for those around him and his unquenchable thirst for justice at every turn.