HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — On Monday afternoon, the NAACP and the Coalition of Concerned Clergy launched their Martin Luther King Jr. Two Weeks of Giving.
For the event, people gathered at the New Hope Baptist Church off Big Bethel Road in Hampton.
The congregation took in two inmates who were unjustly sentenced and granted conditional pardons. The backbone of their fight for freedom was the Hampton NAACP, which worked with former Governor Ralph Northam to secure the pardons.
“Freedom is not free — it is not free at all. We still have a lot of work to do, especially in our criminal justice system. Mass incarceration is real,” Hampton Branch NAACP President Gaylene Kanoyton said.
Lawrence Stephens was sentenced to 18 to 1,823 years in prison and Darnell Nolen was sentenced to 17 to 35 years.
Stephens and Nolen were two of five people involved in what was described as a drug-related home invasion robbery in York County in 2001. The other defendants, one of whom was called the “mastermind” of the crime , received lighter sentences.
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“I just went there young, I never thought I would see this day. It’s a beautiful thing. It was wrong, we shouldn’t have been sentenced to so much time as young people being young people. first-time offenders,” Nolen said.
“I think of Reverend King and how he had to struggle and beat himself and in times of adversity, you just have to keep your faith and keep your hopes up,” Stephens said.
Stephens says he will be moving to North Carolina soon with his sister, but the two have decided to find a way to mentor young people in the community.
As for Hampton’s NAACP, Kanoyton says there are still men and women locked up unjustly — and they won’t stop pushing for their freedom either.
“We know the next four years are going to be a struggle for us, but we’re ready to fight,” she said.
If you want to help both men get back on their feet, the NAACP has started a GoFundMe page for them. If you would like to donate, click here.