TITLE: The Fall and Rise of Clarence Simms
By Perry Stearnes
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Lesson of how it is never too late to turn to Jesus' saving grace.
June 1, 2004 is a special day in Atmore, Alabama. It is graduation time for approximately a hundred and fifty anxious seniors of Escambia County High School. Commencement ceremonies were being held at the local football stadium because it is the only place large enough in the small town to hold the fairly large crowd.
The students were marched in and had a seat. It was time; time to hear the principal give his congratulations and for the guest speaker to give his “words of wisdom”. Usually, a lawyer, doctor, or sometimes the local sheriff would tell the students how this is the beginning of their adult life and about all the opportunities that are waiting for them. The guest speaker would be a little different this year. This year, someone who held no “position” in the area was going to address the young people.
The principal finished his praises and announces the speaker. “Tonight, we’re going to do something a little different than we have in the past. Normally, the school board picks a speaker who we think will motivate you in your future endeavors. This year however, the speaker approached us. I must admit, at first we were reluctant. But, after talking with him, we felt he was perfect for this special night. After listening to him, I think most or all of you will agree. I encourage you to sit back and listen closely to what Mr. Clarence Simms has to say.”
The principal stepped aside as Clarence, a tall black man, slowly waddled to the podium with the escort of two other men. Clarence was wearing a suit that appeared like it was made for a man of much smaller stature, but it wasn’t the suit the kids noticed.
“Good evening. My name is Clarence Simms. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m a little nervous. I’ve never talked in front of this many folks before. I know all of you expected to see some successful person get up here and tell you how great life can be for you. Well, life can be good. It can be bad too. But, that all depends on you.
Our government likes to tell us we all have the same opportunities to succeed. They say we’re all on even playing fields. I’m not sure I agree with that completely, but I do agree we can all succeed at whatever level we’re living on.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I have a couple of guys watching my every move. The great State of Alabama is nice enough to furnish them for me. They are also nice enough to loan me this suit and give me room and board for the past seventeen years right down the road. That’s right; I live in the state penitentiary. I’m there because I wanted to take short cuts in life. I felt I deserved whatever I could take. I took from many of your families and friends. I bought into the notion that it’s the poor folks in life that will be stepped on by society and never be given a chance to make it. I’m gonna spend a few minutes telling you the results of that belief.”
Clarence took a cloth from his front pocket to wipe the sweat from his forehead and eyes. “Hot ain’t it? I won’t take too much of your time. I was raised just down the road a ways in Brewton. My momma did all she could to raise me and my two brothers right. She took us to church when we was little to see to it that we didn’t do like a lot of the other kids in the neighborhood was doing. She always told us to live like Jesus would want us to. I can still hear her saying, ‘Would you do that if Jesus was standing next to you?’ I used to hate it when she said that. It made me feel so bad. Now I wished I could hear her say it one more time.” He was clearly saddened when he spoke of his mother.
“My momma cleaned houses of the “higher class” people in town to earn enough money for us to eat, have hot water, and keep the lights on. Things like that are taken for granted by most folks. Problem was, while she was earning money, me and my brothers was hanging out with some older boys that wasn’t exactly fine upstanding citizens. It didn’t take long for us to start doing the same things they was doing. And what they was doing was robbing folks and beating folks up.”
Clarence stopped for a moment, apparently reflecting on an earlier time. “My oldest brother was shot and killed by someone who didn’t want to give him his watch. Killed over a watch!? Smart huh? I think my momma cried for a month. It wasn’t long after that my younger brother was killed when he ran off a bridge trying to get away from a deputy who saw him run a stop sign. The reason he ran wasn’t because of the stop sign. It was because of the fifty pounds of marijuana in the trunk of the stolen car he was driving.” He shook his head in disgust as he stood there.
“That left me. I wasn’t no saint either. I had already been arrested twice for assault and robbery. And, that was before I was 25. My momma tried to keep me out of trouble, but I didn’t listen. My brothers getting killed just made me hate the world even more. I had so much anger built up inside of me and I was gonna share it with somebody. So, I got me a gun. Someone in one of those nice neighborhoods let me “borrow” it. I just had to break the window to get to it.” One of the kids was heard giggling at that comment. Clarence heard it and angrily responded. “Hey! What are you laughing at? Ain’t none of this funny!”
Clarence re-composed himself and continued speaking. “I went down the road to the biggest house I could find. I found the back door open and just walked right on in like I belonged there. I went upstairs and found a steel safe sitting on the bed open like someone had gotten something out of it. I looked and saw enough money in there to get me out of town and I went for it. When I was putting the last few bills in my pocket, the man of the house walked into the room from one of those walk-in closets. He yelled and ran at me. I didn’t hesitate at all. About the time he got a foot from me, I put the gun to his head and shot him dead right there. Then, I heard a woman scream at the door behind me. Without even flinching, I turned and shot her too. I didn’t want no witnesses. I started running out the room and looked down and recognized the face of the woman laying on the floor in the doorway. It was then that I realized that I shot my own mother.” He couldn’t stop his voice from breaking up as he continued. “I didn’t know she would be cleaning that house. I checked her, but she was dead. I guess the neighbors heard the gunshots and called the police because they got there pretty quick.”
He extended his hands to reveal the cuffs and chains attached to his wrists and waist. “It didn’t take the jury long to sentence me to death. They saw to it that I won’t ever hurt nobody again.”
He paused long enough to observe the faces of the children as they listened. “Don’t feel sorry for me. I deserved everything they gave me. It ain’t got nothing to do with the color of my skin or the neighborhood I was raised in. I just made bad decisions. It don’t matter if you’re black, white, red, or yellow. You build your own roads in life. They won’t always be smooth, but you still decide where they take you.
Since I’ve been in prison, I’ve come to realize the most important thing in life ain’t how much material things you have. It’s what you do with your soul that matters. All that other stuff is just gonna get burnt up anyway.
I met a man since I’ve been there who used to be a preacher. He was arrested because he used the church money to buy some “medicine” for this problem he had. He may have been a thief and a junkie, but he still knew the Bible. He told me the same stories I used to hear from my momma. He also told me those bars I was behind couldn’t keep Jesus out. What I learned most of all is, no matter how bad I had been or what I had done, Jesus still loves me and would never give up on me.
My momma used to tell me to find Jesus. No matter how hard I tried to run, Jesus found me. I surrendered my life to the fine state of Alabama, but I surrendered my soul to Jesus. After falling so far, I was finally raised up.” Tears were starting to fall from the big man’s eyes. They weren’t tears of pain, but strangely enough, based on the look on his face, they were tears of joy.
“Yeah, I had choices. And for most of my life I made all the wrong ones. I could have listened to my momma. I could have stayed in school like all of you did. By the way, this is the first graduation I’ve ever been to. Be glad you’re here. Be glad you have choices. Make the right ones. And ask yourself when you start to do something that may not be the right thing, would you do that if Jesus was standing next to you?”
Clarence looked up and spoke into the sky “Momma, I am doing what Jesus wants me to do. I’ll see you in just a little while.”
Clarence was helped away by his two escorts. The crowd was quiet. No one said a word and nobody got up to leave. You could see it in the eyes of the audience pondering the somber speech they just heard. You could see tears running down the cheeks of some of them. They were expecting to hear success stories designed to motivate them. Instead, they heard words from the heart of a condemned man. It was more than they could have ever hoped for. And when the lights dimmed at midnight, they all remembered the words of Clarence Simms.
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