After Delbert Tibbs dropped out of a Chicago seminary in 1972, he went on the road, walking, hopping freight trains and taking odd jobs across the U.S.
One day in early 1974, police stopped him near Ocala, Fla., and questioned him about a crime 220 miles to the south. The officers took some Polaroid snapshots of Tibbs and then, satisfied he wasn’t involved, sent him on his way.
About a month later, in Lee County, Miss., a highway patrolman stopped him again and arrested him for rape and murder. Tibbs was hauled off to jail in handcuffs. At first, he wasn’t worried. He had an alibi and didn’t match the description of the killer.
“I don’t do anything ‘cause I figure they’re going to let me out of here, so I don’t even bother my family,” Tibbs told oral historian Studs Terkel in an interview published in the 2001 book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith.”
But less than a year after his arrest, an all-white jury convicted Tibbs, an African American, of raping a white teenage girl and murdering her white male hitchhiking companion. Tibbs was sentenced to death in Florida’s electric chair for the murder and to life in prison for the rape.
The case was a cause celebre. During the trial, family and supporters packed the courtroom. Folk singer Pete Seeger wrote a song about Tibbs and activist Angela Davis raised money for his defense. The conviction was overturned on appeal and Tibbs walked out of prison in 1977.
But his time on death row shaped the rest of his life, helped inspire a star-studded play decades later and joined the annals of justice-gone-awry that have propelled the movement to abolish capital punishment.
“I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I hadn’t gone to death row. Because it’s so much a part of my life now,” Tibbs said in a video posted online by a group opposed to the death penalty.
Delbert Lee Tibbs died Nov. 23 at his home in Chicago, said David Love, executive director of Witness to Innocence, where Tibbs had worked since 2011 as assistant director of membership and training. Tibbs was 74 and had been battling cancer.
A poet and lifelong reader, Tibbs was a thoughtful and articulate spokesman who campaigned against the death penalty without bitterness or anger. “He managed to rise above that,” Love said. “He was the most peaceful person I’d ever met. Despite all the turmoil he was able to remain calm.”
Tibbs was born in Shelby, Miss., on June 19, 1939, the youngest of tenant farmer Lillie Bryant’s dozen children. His father was Pete Johnson, a traveling salesman. Bryant raised Delbert with her husband, Frank Tibbs, and when Delbert was 12, brought him to Chicago.
As a young husband and father, Tibbs worked for a firm that printed magazines and catalogs (he told Terkel “it was one of the most racist places that ever existed”) and then got a job as a claims adjuster for a cab company. In 1970, divorced and looking to further his education, he enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary.
But “there was an agitation within my spirit,” Tibbs told Terkel. He dropped out of seminary and began his cross-country travels, winding up in Florida that fateful winter.
Tibbs’ accuser initially told police that the man who raped her and fatally shot her 27-year-old companion was dark-skinned, about 5-foot-6 and sporting a large Afro. She identified Tibbs as the assailant even though he was light-skinned, had a short Afro and was 6-foot-3. A jailhouse informant who claimed Tibbs had confessed to the crime later recanted.
On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court concluded the evidence in the case didn’t support a conviction but said Tibbs could be retried, a finding that the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1982. But the prosecutor dropped all charges after deciding it was too risky to put the victim back on the witness stand given her history of drug and alcohol abuse.
Tibbs’ tale of injustice was one of six accounts of inmates released from death row in ''The Exonerated,” a 2002 play that had a long run off-Broadway, was staged around the country with celebrity casts and was made into a film shown on Court TV.
Over the decades, Tibbs worked a variety of jobs, including car-wash manager, school security guard and youth counselor.
He is survived by a son, Delbert Jr., daughters Mahalia Abeo Tibbs and Afrika Rouselle and three grandchildren.
“Sometimes, I tell myself, ‘Wow, if they hadn’t done this, I could have been a best-selling author.... I could have traveled all over the world,’ ” Tibbs said in a 2002 interview published in the Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald. “But you know, in reality, life isn’t like that. Who knows what might have happened to me? I’m not much of a what-if guy.”