On Thursday, Oct. 21, the University of Maine Alumni Association and the Greater Bangor Area Branch NAACP hosted the Robert Talbot Civil Rights Speaker Series at the Wells Conference Center.
The series is named in honor of Robert “Bob” Talbot, the first executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission. The goal of the series is to promote dialogue and engagement to advance equality and justice. Thursday’s event featured co-authors of the new book “Fighting Time,” Amy Banks and Isaac Knapper.
“Tonight we are talking about reconciliation, compassion [and] human justice, and I don’t think there’s anything more important for a college or university to be considering,” Vice President for Student Life and Inclusive Excellence and Dean of Students Robert Dana said.
Guest speakers Banks and Knapper talked about their story of murder and injustice that brought the two together, bringing about themes of reconciliation, compassion and painful healing.
Amy Banks is the daughter of former UMaine history professor, Ronald Banks. Professor Banks was murdered in 1979 on a visit to New Orleans, and the then 16 year-old Isaac Knapper was wrongfully charged for the murder. Amy Banks was also 16 at the time.
Knapper received a life sentence and spent 13 years in the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, before evidence revealed that he was innocent. They arrested both Knapper and Leroy Brown, another young black man, and the prosecution presented a deal to both of them, offering a lighter sentence if they testified against one another. Knapper refused to lie.
“It didn’t matter to them if it was a lie or not, they just wanted to get a conviction,” Knapper said. “It has a lot to do I believe with racism, because Leroy was Black, I’m Black from the projects and we were accused of killing a white guy, so everything in the courtroom, the prosecutors, the judge, everything was white.”
Leroy Brown took the deal and testified against Knapper, and after a one-day trial, Knapper was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
During Knapper’s time in prison, every day was a struggle to survive. He talked about the brutality he faced.
“Your life was always at risk, you were never actually safe,” Knapper said.
According to Knapper, Angola Penitentiary was the bloodiest in the country, and that every day somebody was killed.
“Everybody had a weapon, you had to have one to survive in there. If you didn’t have a weapon you didn’t have a chance,” Knapper said.
Knapper spent 12 and a half years in prison until Judge Laurie White, a young attorney at the time, read about his case and volunteered to represent him. It was discovered that the prosecution withheld crucial information that proved Knapper’s innocence.
36 years after the murder, about 14 years after Knapper’s release from prison, Banks and her sister Nancy decided to reach out to Knapper after learning about his release.
“They set this young boy up, to take this fall knowing full well that he did not do it,” Amy Banks said. “I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I needed information.”
Since their meeting, they have been on this fight to raise awareness for wrongful convictions and the level of systemic racism in the legal system.
“What we do to people in America in the prison system is sick,”Banks said. “This has got to change, this is not how you treat people, I don’t care what color you are.”
Banks also talked about walking around the UMaine campus and what it felt like seeing her father’s office after so many years.
“Bringing Isaac to that space, it felt like I was introducing him to my father,” Banks said. “It was the end of the full circle event that has been this and it was really incredible.”
A goal of the Robert Talbot Civil Rights Speaker Series is to raise awareness about issues such as wrongful convictions.
“We came up with the concept of an annual civil rights speaker series, and through the Alumni Association and the University of Maine Foundation, we established a special fund that would enable us to bring to Orono nationally relevant speakers,” John Diamond, the president and CEO of the University of Maine Alumni Association, said.
Dr. Robert Talbot was present for the event, as well as his older brother Gerald Talbot, a long-time civil rights activist, and his niece Rachel Talbot Ross.
“Bob’s adult life has been dedicated to freedom,” Michael Alber, the president of the Greater Bangor Area Branch NAACP, said.
Talbot has spent his entire life striving for social justice as a civil rights activist and that is exactly what this series aims to do.
Knapper went on to have a successful career as a boxer, and even went to the 1992 Olympics. He recently was hired to be the head instructor of a new gym in Louisiana built by well-known boxing champion Floyd Mayweather. Banks went on to be a psychiatrist and says she owes a lot of her trauma with her father’s murder to her career.
Amy Banks and Isaac Knapper’s book “Fighting Time” is set to be published on Nov. 5, and they are currently in the process of filming a documentary about their story.
Donations to the Robert Talbot Fund can be made to our.umaine.edu/talbotfund.