Every year on June 19, most African Americans — and now 47 states — celebrate the holiday Juneteenth. If you have not heard of this holiday or this time in history, the concept of Juneteenth began when the Emancipation Proclamation became law in January 1863, but took over two years for more than a quarter million Texan slaves to learn that freedom had been secured — that day was June 19, 1865. But as of a week ago, when I asked a young adult what he knew about Juneteenth, he had no answer. To make matters even worse, I had that same conversation with a 65-year-old who learned nothing of Juneteenth while growing up in school and only heard of it five years ago.
How is that possible, you may ask?
It has become the track record in the United States to withhold history — vital history — from the masses to keep whole groups of people from discovering the truth that would literally set them free. Even almost 160 years later, we are still struggling as African Americans to find freedom from being imprisoned while innocent, with no regard or recompense for the years lost — not to mention the untold trauma.
As we spend another year celebrating Juneteenth, I want the story of a man who lost his young adult life to the justice system to seep into your marrow, and for us to be incredibly careful about judging and making assumptions based on what we are told versus what we know from factual research. We are still so often being led by the nose by what the authorities choose to tell us.
Enter R&B singer and musician Jimmy A. Dennis, who has a story that will break your heart. According to a February article on BET.com, Dennis was placed on death row at the age of 21 for the murder of a 17-year-old in 1991, but was finally exonerated in 2017 — found innocent for a crime that he did not commit.
I spoke with Dennis at length and found a kind and empathetic human being who continues to struggle from the trauma of those years when he fought for his innocence. Yet, he still has love in his heart, and pushes forward to create a different life than the one that was thrust upon him on purpose and meant to destroy him.
Considering recent events in the country, including the first anniversary of the George Floyd killing, I asked Dennis some questions to make others understand just what it is like for the average Black male who is sitting in prison as an innocent man with extraordinarily little hope of being freed.
So, It is with the grim statistics being shared here that I ask the question — just how “free” are we? Life for any of us can shift at the blinking of an eye, and it behooves us as we celebrate Juneteenth and what it means to remember that we truly are not as free as we would like to believe we are. We must always be aware of extenuating circumstances —and of those who purportedly are our leaders — with very little to show for the freedoms we ask for each day.
May Dennis’s story propel you to look beneath the surface of what we are told, and to remember that our ancestors did not give up their lives back then so that others could punitively take ours today.
AS: It has been a year since George Floyd was killed for an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. What has this year been like for you considering your own exoneration for a crime you did not commit?
JD: When I saw what happened to George Floyd, I was horrified like every other person in America, but this is all too true of the existence of Black people in this country. I would be remiss, on the anniversary of the tragedy that was Mr. Floyd’s murder, if I did not mention so many others who still have not gotten justice, such as Sean Bell, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McLean. And for me to have experienced the torture and the suffering — 25 and a half years — and truly not to have really received justice is tragic within itself. What was done to me by the system [was] led by these three corrupt individuals — the two police detectives Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastremski, and the notoriously corrupt prosecutor Roger King.
AS: How important was the recent District Attorney’s race in Philadelphia for you and why?
JD: It was extremely important for me. It was extremely important not to return that office to what it was before, a cesspool of people who lied and did not care about the lives that they destroyed like mine and other innocent people. It was important to me because I love my community. I love this city, and what we had before Larry Krasner was just blatant disregard for the innocent, blatant disregard for people’s constitutional rights and it was pure evil at its utmost. One only must look at what was done to me from the legal decision of August 21, 2013, the honorable Judge Anita Brody’s opinion. There are cases of my innocent brothers such as Anthony Wright, Terrance Lewis, Chester Hollman, Willie Veasy, Theophalis Wilson, Donte Rollins, Christopher Williams, Shaun Thomas — most of these men came home because of Larry Krasner. The previous administrations that I and so many others had to deal with never cared about innocence, never cared about truth or justice, ever. Everything was for political gain, and it destroyed the lives of so many families. People were lied to; lives were destroyed in so many ways many times over. This city cannot afford to go back to that, and the good people of Philadelphia said just that with the election results.
AS: What words of encouragement do you have for the men and women who are currently incarcerated and pleading their innocence?
JD: Never stop believing — understand that your day of truth is coming and that tomorrow always brings hope of a new day and never give up.
AS: What is next for you on the horizon? And how can people contact you to purchase your music or support your work?
JD: We are just releasing my newest song “Luv U Better” in early June, and the EP “Love Songs 25.5” will be out in August. I have a lot of exciting things coming up that I cannot talk about yet!
For more information about Jimmy Dennis and his music projects, visit: www.instagram.com/jimmydennismusic, www.facebook.com/JimmyDennisMusic, and @JimmyADennis1 on Twitter. “U Said, Awe U Went And Did It”, “Hate The Skin I’m In”, “Tears This Year” are available on all streaming platforms and his new song, “Luv U Better” will be out in early June.
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