WINSTON, Ga. (AP) — A crowd gave a hero’s welcome to a 20-year-old freed from a 10-year prison sentence imposed on him for having underage sex in a hotel room at a New Year’s Eve party.
Genarlow Wilson, like the Jena Six in Louisiana and NFL quarterback Michael Vick, is the latest young black man to draw support from many in the black community who seem willing to look past alleged offenses.
For three years, the West Metro NAACP chapter led the fight to free him from the prison term. “Free Genarlow” became a rallying cry across the country as the case turned him into an example of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The Georgia Supreme Court agreed, freeing him on Oct. 26 with a 4-3 decision that called his sentence “cruel and unusual punishment.”
On Saturday night, hundreds rose to their feet and gave Wilson a standing ovation before honoring him with the chapter’s first Staying the Course Youth Award.
Nationally syndicated radio host Warren Ballentine, who has used his show to speak out against racial injustices including Wilson’s case, called the award “a wonderful thing.”
Wilson, applauded for refusing to accept a plea bargain and continuing to contest his sentence, appears humbled by his experience. Sheepish and soft-spoken in interviews, he comes across as polite and respectful — a contrast from the cavalier teen who is shown smiling in a grainy videotape of the hotel room encounter that led to his prison term.
“We’re not awarding him for the video,” said Ballentine, the keynote speaker at Saturday’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fundraiser. “We’re awarding him for fighting … This young man is a champion.”
Still, the attention is sparking a debate over whether accolades are in order.
“I admire that he stood his ground,” said Cassandra Dillard, who was in the audience. “He made a mistake. But I don’t know what he has done that warrants an award.”
Even Wilson acknowledged that the accolades are a bit awkward.
Bryant Purvis and Carwin Jones, two of the so-called Jena Six, looked less than modest when they appeared on the red carpet at the BET Awards in Atlanta last month. They are accused of beating a white teen in a case that galvanized thousands of blacks who saw disparate and excessive prosecution in the small central Louisiana town of Jena. Charges weren’t filed against three white teens accused of hanging nooses in a tree at the local high school shortly before the attack.
While the Jena Six themselves were not honored and BET distanced itself from the fight, the teens received a standing ovation from the audience when they took the stage to help present the Video of the Year award.
Still, there was a perception that they were acting more like superstars than defendants who may have been treated unfairly — but are not necessarily innocent.
Some in the black community may be ignoring such wrongs out of frustration, said Jeff Johnson, an activist and former national youth director of the NAACP.
“I don’t think that it is an intentional negligence on our part,” he said. “It is an optimistic desire to be able to stick it to a justice system that has stuck it to us for so long. But we can’t do that at the cost of justifying behavior that we know is unacceptable. What we’ve got to be able to do is get to the point where we can hold everybody accountable at the same time.”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference came under fire in August after suggesting it would recognize Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick. Although the organization did not say it would honor Vick — who is scheduled to be sentenced next month on federal charges related to a dogfighting operation — it later clarified its position.
“He might’ve made a mistake, but it’s not enough to throw this man away as a human being,” said SCLC President Charles Steele. “This is an opportunity to bring about healing.”
Kimberly Alexander, president of the NAACP chapter, said that while Wilson made some mistakes, his case is still a success story. And audience member Dillard said she respected Wilson’s perseverance, but wasn’t sure she could go beyond supporting him.
“There are so many people who are wrongfully arrested, wrongfully prosecuted, wrongfully incarcerated,” Dillard said. “Do we give an award to all of them? Is it that we’re so in need of heroes? I don’t know.”