By Alice Kim, Editor
Louva Grace Bell was one of the pioneering mothers who helped their sons organize the Death Row 10 campaign. When I met Louva in 1998, her son Ronnie Kitchen was on Illinois’ death row for a crime he did not commit. The story of the Death Row 10 is little known to the public: how a group of Black men who had been tortured by former Commander Jon Burge and a ring of white detectives, courageously organized from behind bars to fight for justice. Insisting that their lives matter, the Death Row 10 and their moms linked up with activists to interrupt Illinois’ death machine when no one seemed to care that a ring of white officers had tortured them, forcing confessions that were used to convict and condemn them to death.
When I met Louva I was an organizer against the death penalty and she was working two jobs as a home healthcare nurse, but she was never too tired to come to meetings, help plan demonstrations, and collect names on petitions demanding new trials for the Death Row 10. She spoke out about Ronnie’s case every chance she got. Louva would describe how the police had arrested Ronnie when he was on the way to the store to buy cookie dough for his son, how they beat him with a telephone book, how they forced him to confess to something he didn’t do.
She also loved telling stories about Ronnie and talked about what a charmer her son was – and this was so true – his smile could make you forget you were visiting him in one of the most sterile inhuman places on the planet.
The first time I went down to Pontiac Correctional Center with Louva, I thought we’d be visiting Ronnie together, so I was surprised when she called out Renaldo Hudson instead. These guys don’t get a lot of visits, she said, and every time we visited, she’d call out another mother’s son. There was a saying among the moms, that they were there for every mother’s son, and with this small act, Louva taught me the meaning of this.
The Death Row 10 formed in 1998, in the wake of Clinton’s Crime Bill, when the country was executing death row prisoners every week and the total number of people on death row had reached a record high of 3,517. In the face of an ever-expanding death row, the Death Row 10 and their moms put a human face on the death penalty.
Ronnie and other members of the Death Row 10 spoke to audiences all over the country from their prison cells via amplified telephone hook-up. These Live from Death Row events – the name borrowed from Mumia Abu Jamal’s memoir – became a hallmark of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the group that organized a public campaign for the Death Row 10. When Ronnie called in to a Live from Death Row, Louva often sat in the front row. “Hello beautiful,” Ronnie would say to his mom before addressing the rest of the audience. It was profound to see Louva’s eyes light up as his voice permeated the room, and for a split second, it would almost feel as if he was there in the room with us.
Armed with a large placard bearing Ronnie’s photo and the date he was tortured, Louva showed up at demonstrations and meetings all over Chicago. Louva organized one of the Hyde Park chapter’s first fundraisers when she turned a family cook-out at a forest preserve into a fundraiser for the Death Row 10. Along with Jeanette Johnson, mother of Stanley Howard, and Costella Cannon whose son Frank Bounds died of cancer when he was on death row, Louva travelled to Washington, D.C. for Representative Jesse jackson Jr.’s press conference announcing proposed legislation for a national moratorium on executions. This powerhouse triumvirate also took Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. down to Pontiac on a special New Year’s Eve death row visit with their sons.
A new community was in the making, and Louva became a co-conspirator and dear friend. I remember when Louva introduced me to turkey necks and chitlins, how she laughed explaining what chitlins were to me. And when I was feeling anxious and stressed and down because our work so often felt like it wasn’t enough, she’d tell me to stop being so hard on myself.
Louva’s life has been an inspiration to so many of us in the anti-death penalty movement. Even as she mourned the loss of her youngest son Redd and her grandson in a brutal murder, she remained steadfast in her commitment to end the death penalty. After surviving several strokes, she moved down to Augusta, Georgia to be near her daughter, where she would live the rest of her years. The month after Ronnie was exonerated, twenty-one years after he was arrested, he visited his mom in Augusta. It was heartbreaking because she was already suffering from dementia, but when she saw him, in a moment of clarity she said, “[this is] my son.”
I will remember Louva’s resolve as she proudly carried her son’s photo around town. I’ll remember our drives down to Pontiac. I’ll remember her stories. And I’ll remember her fierce love. As Ronnie once said, “My mom had the spirit of 10,000 angels and the roar of a lioness.”