The 13-Year-Old Boy Who Grew Up In a Georgia Prison
This is the first part of a six-week series on Michael "Little B" Lewis.
In January 1997, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I submitted my application to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight months later I'd call Atlanta and Morehouse home. In the 18 years since, I became a student leader, graduated from Morehouse, married my high school sweetheart, had three kids and adopted two more, wrote and published my first book, started a church, started a charity, bought and sold our first home in Atlanta, nearly died in a car accident, started and sold three businesses, moved to California, moved to New York City, and moved to South Africa. I've now been alive longer since I sent in that application than I was before I sent it.
A few gray hairs are popping up on my 35-year-old head and I have children in elementary, middle, and high school. In that same period of time, since January 1997, a young brother I now see as my peer, Michael Lewis, has spent every day of every year in prison. As I reflect back on everything that's happened over the past 18 years, my mind can't begin to fathom what it would be like to have spent all of them behind bars. No marriage, no kids, no college, no travel, no businesses, no charities.
When Michael Lewis entered prison, tried and convicted as an adult for murder in Georgia at the outrageous age of 13, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. The top movie in the world was Titanic. Michael Jordan was still winning NBA championships. Michael Jackson had just gotten married, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa were still alive, and the Internet hardly even existed. iPhone and Android and Bluetooth and Xbox and Twitter and Facebook were all make-believe.
Before we dig in to Michael's story, take a moment and think back to when you were 13 years old. Where did you live? What grade were you in? How great was your judgment? What did you like doing when you were 13?
Now, think for a moment about all you've learned and experienced since you were 13 years old and imagine spending every single day since your 13th birthday in prison. It's hard to grasp isn't it?
Soon after moving to Atlanta in August 1997, I began hearing stories on the news and in church about a 13-year-old boy named "Little B." His story had gripped the city and was regularly on the nightly news and on the front page of the AJC. They said he murdered a dad in cold blood in front of his kids on Jan. 21, 1997. I didn't know if it was true or not, but I was immediately struck that it seemed like every politician and newscaster hated his guts. I haven't heard the word used since, but I never forgot hearing him called a "super predator" on television. What does that even mean?
When I finally saw Michael "Little B" Lewis for the first time, I couldn't believe it. He wasn't even five feet tall, weighed less than 100 pounds, and looked about as nonthreatening as a sixth grader possibly could. He wasn't a bully. He was a pipsqueak in the truest sense of the word. A wee lad.
He had grown up just about a mile from Morehouse, in the shadows of the Georgia Dome, in a neighborhood called the Bluff. As students we were told where it was and that we should never go near it. The epicenter for the Atlanta drug trade, it was the most dangerous neighborhood in the city and one of the most dangerous communities in the country.
I would eventually become a mentor at John F. Kennedy Middle School in the Bluff" the following year. On my first day there a girl had her face cut with a razor and the reigning Teacher of the Year, a former Canadian League football player, told me if he had it to do all over again he'd never have become a teacher and that I should find another profession while I had the chance. He literally told me that I should consider finding another school to mentor in because he had grown to think he really wasn't helping anyone there. Two weeks later, the principal had a heart attack and I started mentoring at the elementary school around the corner, but I've always felt a deep connection to that neighborhood.
On the side of a raggedy apartment building that Little B used to live in, graffiti covered the plaster with the words, "The Bluff Nigga. Welcome to Hell." The only church in the center of the community had been abandoned and burned out for at least the 15 years I saw it.
No boy typified and demonstrated the system's failure of Atlanta more than Michael Lewis. For me, he is the Bluff. The living, breathing product of a community that a world-class city like Atlanta felt easier to abandon than rescue, Michael's boyhood descended into a grade-A clusterfuck. Instead of accepting him as the boy Atlanta made, he would soon be cast into a perpetual state of punitive abyss, apparently forever.
I don't know if Michael killed that man in January 1997. It's possible though I have serious doubts. What I do know is that in the years before that night, Michael had been abandoned, by his parents, his school, social services, the community, and his extended family long before that fateful January day. The idea that we live in a nation willing to try a prepubescent 13-year-old sixth grader as an adult (mind you, the state didn't think he was old or responsible enough legally to drive, vote, serve in the military, buy cigarettes or alcohol or lottery tickets) and banish him to an adult penitentiary for the rest of his life is despicable.
I'm going to spend the next six weeks sharing everything I know about Michael Lewis, his case, the Bluff, Atlanta, city politics, the education system, the social service system, the drug trade, and how Michael found himself caught right in the middle of it all as an abandoned orphan on the streets, fighting for his own survival. I'm going to go back as far as I can and tell the whole story. I hope you'll take the journey with me.
Check back at DailyKos.com for future stories about Michael Lewis.