A Veteran’s Journey ‘From Jim Crow, to Death Row, to the Free World’

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Moreese Bickham tells his story through the documentary film "Seven Dates With Death," produced by local attorney and activist Joan Cheever.

Courtesy

Moreese Bickham tells his story through the documentary film "Seven Dates With Death," produced by local attorney and activist Joan Cheever.

In 1958, white deputies shot Moreese Bickham, a 41-year old black man, in the chest on his front porch in Mandeville, La., though he was holding his unloaded shotgun in the air, in surrender. Fallen to the floor, Bickham loaded the gun and killed them both.

“It was me or them,” he told Joan Cheever, San Antonio author of "Back From the Dead: One Woman’s Search for the Men who Walked off America’s Death Row," published in 2006.

An all-white jury, after two hours of deliberation, found Bickham guilty and sentenced him to death. After seven stays of execution during just over 37 years of incarceration at Angola prison, Bickham was released when the death penalty was lifted in 1972, the oldest person on Death Row. He was released from prison in 1996 and died in April, 2016, at age 98.

Through an unlikely chain of events, Cheever produced a 10-minute documentary about Bickham, "Seven Dates With Death," which is making the rounds at film festivals and is scheduled for public released at the end of 2017. This week the film was awarded one of 13 certifications by Got Your 6 (military jargon for “I’ve got your back”) along with the TV crime drama "Criminal Minds," the Denzel Washington film "Fences," the Ken Burns documentary "The Vietnam War," and other content that “normalizes depictions of veterans as leaders and community assets.”

Got Your 6 consists of a panel of “Hollywood people and veterans,” Cheever said, who work to honor the depiction of veterans as leaders, team builders, and problem solvers with unique strengths. The current review committee includes Bruce Cohen, producer of "American Beauty" and "Silver Linings Playbook"; Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS); and Bill Rausch, executive director of Got Your 6.

While "Seven Dates with Death" focuses on Bickham’s experience as a death row inmate, it was the draping of an American flag on his coffin during the final credits that gave “a positive military dimension to his story,” according to a press release. He served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Marcus Island from December 16, 1943 until he was honorably discharged on January 6, 1946.

“I’m really tickled about the Got Your 6 honor because this is Memorial Day weekend and I come from Military City, U.S.A," Cheever said. “Also, I think one of the things that got Moreese through those 14 years on Death Row and 37 ‘inside’ were his faith, but also the discipline of the military. The more I’ve been reading about his service [in his papers], I can see it.”

Cheever told the Rivard Report that of the 300-plus Death Row inmates paroled and released from prison whom she sought out for her book, her favorite was Bickham.

“There were many wonderful people I met writing the book,” she said, “but his story is so compelling and his attitude was really incredible for someone who went through so much for a crime that would not have happened had he been white – to spend half your life locked up, defending yourself. But he never had any bitterness at all in 19 years of our friendship. He had seven dates with the electric chair, but he survived.”

Through Bickham’s friendship with Cheever and her family, he visited San Antonio many times as a guest in her home from his home in Oakland, California and later a small town in Oregon.

“He’s fished in the Blanco River and he spoke to classes at UTSA and the University of the Incarnate Word,” Cheever said.

After she arranged a private tour of the Alamo for him, he was made an honorary Texan and given the flag that flew over the Alamo the day he was there.

Moreese Bickham (right) on a fishing trip with Joan Cheever in July 2005.

Courtesy / Joan Cheever

Moreese Bickham (right) on a fishing trip at Cachuma Lake, Calif. with Joan Cheever in July 2005.

Crosspoint, which provides transitional housing for released federal prisoners on the Eastside, honored their friendship with the Bickham/Cheever Garden because Bickham loved to garden in prison and shared the produce with inmates and guards. He also was ordained a Methodist minister while in prison and earned a GED and certification as an auto mechanic.

The creation of "Seven Dates With Death" was as happenstance as her son Austin’s choice of college – Ithaca College, in upstate New York.

His roommate, a film major named Mike Holland, was interested in social justice issues and wanted to make a film on capital punishment.

“Austin said, ‘Then, you need to talk to my mother.’”

To narrow his focus, Cheever suggested Holland feature Bickham’s story, “from Jim Crow, to death row, to the free world.” She believes he succeeded, making a documentary that in places is hard to watch and in just 10 minutes encapsulates reams of material, including eight legal pads of journaling the former inmate gave her. The film reenacts the shooting, prison life and release, as Bickham narrates his story. While his Southern accent expresses his persona subtitles were needed for understandability.

"Seven Dates With Death" Cinematographer Garrett Nicholson, Executive Producer Joan Cheever and Director/Producer Mike Holland at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 7, 2017.

Courtesy / Joan Cheever

"Seven Dates With Death" Cinematographer Garrett Nicholson, Executive Producer Joan Cheever and Director/Producer Mike Holland at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 7, 2017.

Holland finished the film and graduated from college, but Bickham didn’t live to see it completed. Holland plans to continue making films and see where it takes him.

Cheever, her husband Dennis Quinn, and Holland have traveled to four film festivals to present the film, but Cheever tries to make it home by Tuesday night. That’s when the Chow Train, Cheever’s healthy food cart, opens its windows and feeds the hungry. “Even if we can’t get back, everyone still gets dinner on the street. The Chow Train has a great crew.”

Cheever comes from a military family. She is the granddaughter of Col. Charles E. Cheever Sr. (now deceased), Judge Advocate General for Gen. George S. Patton with the Third Army (SAT) in World War II. Patton appointed “his lawyer” to be the supervising prosecutor for the Dachau War Crimes trials and Col. Cheever was a member of the Nuremberg legal team of prosecutors.

Joan Cheever’s father, Lt. Col. Charles E. Cheever Jr. of San Antonio, is a 1949 graduate of West Point and served in the Air Force as a jet fighter instructor and Air National Guard.

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