The 19th annual MLK Breakfast was held on Monday morning at the Tennessee State Museum attracting over 1,000 citizens and community and government leaders from across Middle Tennessee to for a discussion with Cyntoia Brown-Long.
The breakfast was hosted by the law firm Bone McAllester Norton and featured a conversation between current Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dinkins and Brown-Long, who rose to prominence after she was sentenced to life in prison for the 2004 killing of a 43-year-old man who had picked her up for sex when she was 16.
Bone McAllester Norton led the legal fight that resulted Brown-Long's release from prison on Aug. 7 after a successful bid for clemency.
She has since become an author, speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform and victims of sex trafficking.
Brown-Long recently released a book, "Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System,” which earned her a NAACP Image Award nomination.
“What makes a great law firm isn’t only top-flight lawyers, but also a steadfast commitment to the community in which we practice,” Bone said in a news release. “From the day we opened the doors of Bone McAllester Norton, we’ve maintained a dual commitment to legal excellence and community as our compass. This event to honor Dr. King’s legacy is an important part of that, as was our work to free Cyntoia Brown-Long.”
Judge Dinkins and Brown-Long spoke for about an hour about the challenges that Brown-Long faced in prison and how she gained her freedom through the help of educators and advocates within the LIFE (Lipscomb Initiative for Education) Program at Lipscomb University who supported her and helped to bring more awareness to Brown-Long as a victim of sex trafficking and of the criminal justice system.
"There's a lot of hurt people in there. Everyone who's been there has gone through this system, I mean it’s designed to break you and bring you to your lowest point, everything about it is, so when I first arrived I was just the lowest of the low,” Brown-Long said. “Getting to know the community of Lipscomb, them showing me, no, you have a place where you belong, and there’s value in your life and we believe in you, we see things in you that we believe in, that was so transformative.”
When asked what the future holds, Brown-Long said that she is committed to speaking truth to power and sharing her story, one that she said is all too common within the American criminal justice system.
“I am a firm believer that God allows certain things to happen in our lives for a reason. What he’s give me is a testimony. He’s allowed me to go through this not just so I could go through it and get out and just go one with my life, right, because I can’t forget everything that I went through in there,” Brown-Long said. “I can’t forget the people who are in there and I can’t forget understanding that as I was going through the process, as I was going before these judges and before these prosecutors, they didn’t see me as a person. But when I did meet one who did see me as a person, when I was able to sit down with these judges and prosecutors and legislators who said, 'oh this is a person, this could be my daughter, this could be my sister,' it completely changed everything.”
“You know, for me, I want them to see that I’m not just some miraculous occurrence, there are thousands of people who are just like me in there. So however that can happen, by sharing my testimony, by sharing my experiences, that’s what I’m committed to doing,” Brown-Long said.
Dinkins said that it's up to leaders to come together and listen and talk honestly about issues of social injustice in order to correct society's problems, speaking on the lessons of Dr. King and of the greater civil rights movement.
“Let us go forward from his day talking and listening,” Judge Dinkins said. “We will not always agree on how we will get to where God ordains us to be, and I believe that that is a community, and not a divided one but a beloved community, but we have to talk and we have to listen.”
The MLK Breakfast closed with a speech by Dr. Ernest "Rip" Patton, who at the age of 21 was one of the Freedom Riders in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's.
Watch the entire video of the conversation courtesy of Bone McAllester Norton PLLC below.