Our friend and fellow warrior for human rights, Martina Davis Correia, has passed on. She stopped breathing at about 6:28pm on December 1st in Savannah, Georgia while I stood near her hospital bed along with family and friends. She passed in peace, though she endured a painful struggle following the failure of a liver that had taken a severe beating in the course of a decade’s worth of cancer treatments.
Martina changed us and she changed our world. She spoke truth to power in the way that a prophet does: bringing a timely message out of the margins and to the masses with a conviction that we wish our leaders in power had. But while millions would come to hear her story, she began as a voice crying in the wilderness speaking to very small groups. The first rally we organized for her brother Troy Davis in 2007 at the state capitol in Atlanta drew a crowd of just forty people. This year, when the state set a fourth execution date for Davis, thousands came out and marched with us through the streets of Atlanta and thousands more gathered in about 300 locations around the world in solidarity. Traditional and social media coverage of the Davis story expanded the audience to hundreds of millions of people and about a million signed the petitions for clemency. No exaggeration.
Martina needed us, the human rights movement, to lift her up where she could be seen and to hand her a powerful microphone so that she could be heard. And we needed her, a modern-day prophet for human rights who inspired so many people to get involved with the effort to abolish the death penalty as an important imperative within the larger struggle for human rights. She motivated us when the struggle seemed difficult and insurmountable. She compelled us to fight hard for justice; after all, if this odds-defying woman was battling cancer, raising a son and working hard to save her brother, in a hostile environment, there was nothing we could not do.
It was indeed a privilege to work side-by-side with her in our campaign for her brother’s life. Through hard, persistent and inspired work, we built this movement together. For over a decade, Martina was a volunteer leader with Amnesty International, working on a variety of issues, though specializing in death penalty abolition work. She came to Amnesty because she believed in her brother and wanted to help him and countless others who faced injustice. It was never just about her brother – her vision was always bigger.
Martina fought her deteriorating body every step of the way to hold onto life and to be in this world for her family and for the human family. Her body finally gave out, living eleven years longer than doctors predicted she would. It is unimaginable what stress and hardship she and her family faced having a loved one on death row who was almost executed three times, then finally killed by the state she called home and in the country she served as a military and civilian nurse. Martina’s mother, though in perfect health, died shortly after Troy Davis’ final appeal was denied and a few months before his execution. The families of murder victims and the families of death row prisoners endure enormous pain. The death penalty is horrifically destructive, creating a downward spiral of violence that drags so many people down in its wake. We must end it so that an authentic justice that brings us accountability, healing and a better future can take root and blossom.
When I was in the hospital on Martina’s final day, I asked her sister Kim if the crowd of visiting friends jammed in the hospital room should leave to give her and her family some time alone with Martina. Kim said without hesitation, “No, that’s Ok, we’re all family here.” And that’s exactly what Martina, Troy and the other Davises believed too. We’re all part of one human family. Our destinies are connected. Our rights, our dignity and our well-being are connected. Martina, sister warrior, we love you, we are deeply thankful you were here. We know your spirit is still joined with ours to carry on the struggle for the rights of everyone in the human family.