Drive the backroads of South Carolina to the small town of Ridgeville, and you’ll be greeted by a large, handmade sign reading “Your sins killed Jesus” amid the pine forests and small barns. I grew up traveling those roads but only recently noticed the sign, long after I had stopped caring about sin and consequence or what either of those things means.
Because on April 27, 1982, while I was asleep in a room with a couple of wooden bunk beds, blankets on the floor, and too many brothers, Herbert “Moochie” Bailey Jr., was killing a man named James Bunch a few miles away. Moochie was 22 years old at the time. I was only 9.
Before Moochie was a murderer, he was something of a savior inside our single-wide, tin-can of a trailer home. He was the son who had protected my mother from an abusive, alcoholic husband. The brother who shielded the rest of us from the bullies down the road and the kids who made fun of my stutter. He insisted that we wear clean clothes whenever we stepped out into the world. He led us on long jogs through our rural, Deep South hometown, St. Stephen — up Russellville Road, past the high school and back — barking out orders in a military cadence. He made us dream of becoming the Bailey version of the Jackson 5, even though none of us could carry a tune. We had the Afros, not the dance moves.
We had stars in our eyes any time we were in Moochie’s presence. We were blind to his faults, maybe out of willful ignorance, maybe because he was great at shielding us from his darker side. And he had one. Moochie had started dabbling in drugs, marijuana, and harder stuff. He had even mugged women, “sometimes for fun, sometimes for money,” he’d tell me years later. He would go on to serve jail time on various robbery charges.
When Moochie showed up back home at about 10:30 the night of the murder, Bunch was already dead, stabbed dozens of times. Forty-eight was the number we’ve mostly used, though there’s no real way of knowing based on the condition of his body.
Bunch was the owner of a small country store in Bonneau, about seven miles from St. Stephen. Moochie and other young men hung out there, playing pool, drinking beer, shooting the shit. The night my brother stabbed him, Bunch had staggered to a neighbor to ask for help but bled to death shortly thereafter. “Hey, Doug or Willie, bring me some clothes,” Moochie shouted to two of my brothers from the bathroom, where he was hiding after running into the house covered in blood.
“What you doing in there?” my oldest sister asked.
“Leave me alone,” he said, returning from behind the closed door, where he changed into jeans and a T-shirt and left again before any of us could figure out what was wrong or where he was going. Moochie then headed to a juke joint called Dreamland, which was near our home church. Somewhere along the way, he threw away the knife he’d used to kill Bunch.
Officers showed up at our house, asking for Moochie and wanting to search the premises. There were two or three out front, another couple hiding in the backyard. “As soon as you hear from him, you give us a call,” an officer told Mama, handing her a business card before driving off with the sirens on.
They found Moochie before Mama did. He was interrogated for a couple of hours before a public defender stepped in and told him not to sign the confession he had written without a lawyer present, a portion of which read:
The way it happened is this. This was the second time that I had seen Mr. Bunch since Saturday. I had robbed him of [$260]. I went to his house and tried to get him to make a deal. He refused the deal. The thought then came to mind to kidnap him. At that point in time, a struggle ensued. Mr. Bunch refused to be kidnapped. Due to the struggle, I pulled out my knife [brown in color] from my pocket and stabbed Mr. Bunch about the face several times. Mr. Bunch then ran out of the house staggering.
Nearly a year after being arrested, Moochie pleaded guilty to the murder, and in exchange, the prosecution didn’t pursue the death penalty. He was given a life sentence and would be eligible for parole in 17 years.
Moochie felt he was sparing us from having to sit through a trial and possibly witness his execution. “I’m doing this for you and the boys,” he told Mama in the courtroom.
My mother was 13 years old when she married my father in 1955. As best we can tell, he was 39.
She was one of a dozen siblings her parents could barely afford. She owned two dresses and wore shoes with makeshift cardboard soles. Her father gave her away to one of his colleagues. She was young and pretty and would be one less mouth to feed.
Shortly into the marriage, she started feeling sick while picking the fields that dot Berkeley County. She didn’t know she had just miscarried or that she was even pregnant. By age 18, five years into the marriage, she gave birth to Moochie. She would have eight more boys and two girls.
Every Friday, my father would walk into the house, drunk and violent, after making deliveries in his bread truck. One time, he hit Mama in the back of the head with a hammer. The blow caused blackouts and migraines. She had been working 12-hour shifts driving a forklift at a Georgia-Pacific wood plant but was forced out of her job and had to apply for disability because of the physical effects of the abuse.
As Moochie got older, he was also subject to beatings. Days after Mama gave birth for the third time, my father beat 10-year-old Moochie and kicked him out of the house. Moochie wasn’t wearing a shirt or shoes. He ran barefoot for a couple of miles to my grandmother’s house.
Around that same time, Moochie decided to do something about the beatings. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen, stood in the dark behind the front door, and said he was going to kill our father when got home from work because Moochie was tired of seeing Mama get hurt.
Mama talked him out of it.
In the years shortly following the murder, there was hardly a weekend or holiday when Mama wouldn’t load us into our wood-paneled station wagon to go on the long drives to whatever prison Moochie had been transferred to. Those trips were mostly the same. We’d drive through rural areas in South Carolina and stand in a long line outside the prison in rain or 100-degree heat. Prison guards would check our IDs and purses and pockets and wave handheld metal detectors. Then we’d walk through multiple large, slow-moving metal doors that would close behind us before another would open.
I grew to hate the metal bars. As a 12-year-old, I found it disturbing to see guards taking Moochie out of handcuffs and then putting him back in them. It never seemed to bother my brother, though. He was giddy over the Polaroid family portraits we’d take during those visits, posing in front of a fake background of the beach.
Every time we saw him, his dreadlocks were longer, eventually reaching down his back. Malcolm X became a Muslim when he was introduced to Islam in prison. A couple of years into his sentence, Moochie became a Rastafarian, changed his name to Mtume Obalaji Mfume, and dedicated himself to that religion in a way he never submitted to Christianity.
He talked about freedom during every visit as if he knew what that meant, and he preached about the importance of staying in physical shape and always being ready for a pending war he believed was on the horizon and that I believed was a figment of his imagination. He wrote about avoiding masturbation to ensure a clean and open mind, one receptive to the voices of powerful spirits. His letters were vague and intriguing, and they kept coming, kept getting longer, kept listing the books he had read and wanted me to read, kept going on about Africa and education and strength.
But I didn’t want to learn about Africa from prison letters, which seldom reminded me of Moochie, only some stranger named Mtume. I knew so little about Africa then. We learned nothing about it in history classes in South Carolina. When “Roots” aired on TV several years before Moochie went to prison, my friends and I would laugh at Kunta Kinte for trying to escape and we would snicker at the unkempt hair of the women slaves. Moochie kept describing our African ancestors as kings and queens. On “Roots,” they resembled people in St. Stephen who had mental-health and substance-abuse problems, with dark skin and even darker existences.
The fact that my brother was in prison already made it difficult for me to protect myself against racist stereotypes. To have others perceive me as anything like a slave — in appearance, in thought, in sympathy — was too much.
For a while throughout high school, I tried writing to him anyway. I wrote to him about my football and academic scholarships, about my National Honor Society-level grades, and about a girlfriend or two. Sometimes I wrote only a few lines, wanting to hear from the man I once knew, the one who used to ask me about football or Michael Jackson.
I wanted to tell him about my frustrations with my stutter, which grew worse after he was locked away. My words flowed freely in my letters, however, and when I finally found the courage to ask Moochie if he believed, like members of our family did, that my worsening impediment had something to do with him going away, I received this in response:
Yeah, man, there’s tons of connections, ... and pieces necessary to bring consciousness [ed note: punctuation is as it originally appeared in the letter]. My story is simply a part of the larger story. — The Black Panthers, .. The Nation of Islam, especially, during the 60’s, .. and Cointelpro. You could use a copy of my trial/court transcript. You could use the one I got to make copies. Remember, … they were attempting to seek the death penalty in my case, … therefore, … even for me to be around, … now, … is a testament of Jah Jah’s blessing. Yeah, … that stuttering thing … yeah, … I guess that had pissed you off for awhile. Yeah, … keep researching history … our families histories, our people’s history, … you’ll find the key to that whole thing … (come to think of it, .. you the only one that stutters, huh, … — of course, … now that I think back, … I remember, … Piankhy (Doug) … and Akhenaton (Josh) stuttered for a while, …
Then there was the time I wrote to him about his victims. I had started thinking more about Bunch family, who remained a mystery, but one I wanted to solve. I wanted to make amends, I think. I wanted to tell them that what Moochie had done was horrific, but that he had accomplished good things, too, I think. Although I wouldn’t meet any of them until 25 years after the murder, I had always wanted them to like me, to not see me and my other brothers as monsters. I think.
I hoped Moochie would write back and say something profound about what happened. About what he’d done. About who he was when he killed James Bunch. He responded but never broached the subject to claim innocence or express regret. Instead, he wrote:
Brother, … Rastafari and Afrocentricity is/are my salvation. Brother, … Jah Jah never fail I yet, … Brother, … I still say to you, … and each of our family members, … Grow your dreadlocks, … Grow your dreadlocks, … Grow your dreadlocks, …, … smile, … know thyself, … know your history and you will always be wise.
So I did the only thing I could. I slowly started to pull away from Moochie and the things he seemed to represent. I wondered how he’d feel to learn that when I was 16 years old, I refused to date a girl in high school because her skin was too dark. I can still see her smiling at me, wearing her Food Lion shirt. I’ll never forget the day we chatted as she rang up my groceries and handed me her phone number. I didn’t stutter once. She was beautiful, but I was convinced my friends would laugh. I never spoke to her again.
I wondered how Moochie would feel to know that a few years before that encounter, I had taken a hot comb to my head to straighten my hair, which reminded me too much of pictures of slaves. The comb was actually a heavy piece of dark iron with a wooden handle. I’d place it on the front left eye of our gas stove, watch it begin to smoke, then carefully pull it through my hair the way I had seen my sister and cousins do, sometimes burning the tops of my ears, sometimes not. My hair would stay straight for the rest of the day but then revert to its natural state by the following morning. I hated when family members and friends called me “peasy head,” our word for nappy, even though I would join them in taunting others.
And I wondered how Moochie would feel if he knew that I wrote a paper in college comparing Martin to Malcolm. I earned a B+, but my white professor noted that had he been black, he would have been angrier about the state of racial bigotry than I seemed to be.
If Moochie had been the first person in our family to graduate from a four-year university instead of being the first to serve decades in prison, I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t have struggled with my identity. I don’t think you can grow up in the South and avoid that reckoning, even under the best circumstances. But prison crystallized the struggle like nothing else. My oldest brother, a black man, was incarcerated. Prisoners are shackled the way slaves were. Slaves were ugly, with dark skin and kinky hair.
After graduating high school, I decided to go Davidson College, an elite, liberal arts school with a student population that was more than 90 percent white at the time (Strom Thurmond’s son was in my freshman class). I chose Davidson partly because they would pay my way, but also because I wanted to prove myself in a sea of privileged white people, students who had access to AP courses and computer labs.
I was so scared after I got my first test results in Psychology 101. The class average was 88, and the top grade was a 98. My score: 48. I was the only black student in a class of about 25.
While Moochie was urging me to go to Africa to find myself, I felt I could never truly know myself until I made my way through Davidson. Maybe that’s why I almost never talked about Moochie in college. It was bad enough having to overhear the white students openly question whether the black students had earned their way in.
Monthly visits to Moochie became yearly ones, and then even less frequent.
I can’t remember how many years passed before I made my way to see my brother in Bennettsville, about a two-hour drive from where I was living in Myrtle Beach. It was 1998, and I was a fresh-faced reporter three years out of college. I told my editor I was taking a day off to see my brother.
“I hope you guys have fun,” she said, not knowing that I was visiting Moochie in prison.
I wanted to see him partly because I felt guilty that it had been so long since I had last visited, and also because I wanted him to meet my fiance, Tracy Swinton. She and I had met eight years earlier, during the summer before our senior year in high school. We felt sparks and eventually made our way back to each other after college.
We were sitting silently in a dingy room at Evans Correctional Institute when two guards ushered Moochie into an adjoining, closet-sized area to remove his handcuffs and leather holders. Moochie had been in solitary confinement for more than three years, ever since the head of the state Department of Corrections, Michael Moore, had instituted a dress code for prisoners as part of a tough-on-crime policy. The most contentious directive: all inmates had to have closely cropped hair.
The policy was met with fierce resistance. In April 1995, prisoners at Broad River Correctional Facility stabbed five guards and took three staff members hostage. It took 11 hours of negotiations to end the unrest.
Moochie knew about the riot even though he was at Evans, which was about 100 miles away. Department of Corrections officials locked down prisoners throughout the system to ensure the riot wouldn’t spread.
“They went to every cell and they gave every prisoner an ultimatum: get into the correct grooming standard or go to lock up,” Moochie said. He chose solitary. His dreadlocks were a sacred sign of his faith:
All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the LORD, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long. Numbers 6:5
Maybe a dozen Rastafarians, Muslims, and Five Percenters joined Moochie in solitary and took a vow of silence in protest, particularly in the presence of prison guards and officials. But one-by-one, they began to submit to haircuts at the request of family members who wanted to visit, hear their voices, see their faces. Moochie remained in solitary for years behind a gray metal door. He almost never spoke.
He got his daily hour of free time in the rec area — in shackles — and medical care when necessary, but not much else. He passed the time meditating and jogging in tight circles inside his cell. He copied entire books by hand, including “Afrocentricity,” the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and “The Black Holocaust for Beginners.”
When I took Tracy to visit him for the first time, he was still in solitary and his parole date was approaching, almost two decades into his life sentence. But being in solitary meant he had no chance of earning “good time.” He couldn’t do the things that make a prisoner look like he is ready to rejoin society, like taking job-training courses.
He smiled when he saw us but didn’t say anything in front of the guards. Silence had become his weapon. He had been using hand signals, head nods, and written notes to communicate. I knew about his protest and mentioned it to Tracy. Still, she was taken aback seeing it in person. I was, too. He looked thin. While the guards hovered nearby, he barely spoke, instead scribbling on a few sheets of paper, his hand moving like the arm of a seismograph picking up the energy from a massive earthquake.
Once we were alone in the small room, Moochie spoke for the first time, his voice barely rising above a whisper. When I tried to get him to say more, he smiled, showing a set of teeth straighter and whiter than maybe anyone in our family. When a guard pulled a chair to the open door, he started writing again.
His handwriting was barely legible. The letters tiny, bleeding into each other. “They don’t give us too much paper, you know,” Moochie whispered, trying to ignore the guard. “Those cats something else man, those cats something else.” His torso and head were in a perpetual rocking motion, his eyes darted up to us, then to the guard at the door, then down to his paper. The cycle repeated itself in one seamless loop as quickly as his hands moved along the paper.
This went on for about 45 minutes before the guards took him back.
“You honestly think he's ready to get out?” Tracy asked as we headed home.
The next time I saw Moochie was two years later, on Aug. 9, 2000, about a year before the birth of my first child, Kyle. I made the lonely five-hour drive to Evans Correctional Institute for his first parole hearing. Solitary confinement had remained an obstacle to regular visits, though I’m not sure I would have gone back earlier even if it wasn’t.
Moochie would be making his case to the parole board via closed-circuit TV. A decade after he’d been convicted, South Carolina severely restricted parole for prisoners sentenced to life. The new law didn’t apply to Moochie, although the odds were still stacked against him. Only a small percentage of violent offenders in South Carolina were being paroled, and the lucky few were often deathly ill.
I met up with Mama; one of my brothers, Willie; his fiancée; two pastors from St. Stephen; an aunt; and a lawyer. We walked through the glass-encased booth, down a 200-foot concrete walkway surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire, through a metal door where a prison guard checked our identification. The guard told us that one of pastors, the lawyer, and three family members would be allowed in.
The visitor’s room was large, drab, and filled with people waiting to see their loved ones. Moochie called to us as a prison guard placed him in a holding room. We waved. He pressed his head against the bars to show us his smile.
We were led into a small room with a large TV. “This hearing is for Mtume Obalaji Mfume, serving a life sentence for murder,” a voice from the TV rang out. “Anybody here to speak on his behalf can begin.”
The lawyer said Moochie felt extremely remorseful and that his dreadlocks were a sign of deep faith and positive change. He had pages of prepared words, but the voice from the TV said he wanted to hear from family members. So Willie stepped forward: “Without him there teaching us, man,” he told the board, “we couldn’t have grown into the men were are today. We need our brother. We have two younger brothers right now that need that same guidance, that same strong presence that only Moochie can provide for this family. Man, I have so much to say . . .”
“Seems like you don't need him that much; you turned out pretty well without him,” the voice said. “Does his other brother want to say something?”
“My name is Issac Bailey, and Moochie left us when I was about 9 years old,” I began, throwing words from my mouth faster than I had in years.
That didn’t last long, though.
“And I can tell you that, um, ah, um, ah, um, um, um, ah, um, um, ah, ah, um, um, um, that even though he has, um, ah, ah, um, been teaching me...”
Moochie’s lawyer turned towards me, his head slowly swiveling on his neck. Willie and Mama sat stoically, not taking their eyes off the screen.
“Sir,” Moochie interrupted, talking to the screen. “I know that crime was a terrible thing, and I’m sorry for that, and will try everything I can to make up for it. Man, oohhh. I don’t know that there are words to express my regret for what happened that night. Man, I know that crime was… I’ve been studying in here, taking a lot of classes and have learned a lot. I’m not that little boy who came in here 19 years ago. Man, I’m ready.”
His hands were folded in front of him on the table, feet close together, knees touching. He resembled a student who had been called to the principal’s office.
Moochie went on for a few more minutes before Mama chimed in and said that everything at home was in place for him to make a successful return to society. “We need him home,” she said, staring at the screen. “I need him home.”
“Thank you,” the voice told us. “Ya’ll can leave now. We’ll let you know in a few minutes.”
An excited energy ushered us out of the room. We shook hands with a few of the prison guards.
Five minutes later, a prison official gave us the verdict: “Your petition for parole has been denied.” Every parole hearing over the next 14 years ended the same way and without explanation.
It was around that first parole hearing that I stopped caring about my nappy hair and started caring more about my son’s life and how best to raise him in a world that might be too quick to judge him. I later had a daughter named Lyric, and I wanted to teach her how to navigate images of beauty and self-worth that often excluded people like her.
That’s when I finally began writing about Moochie. I’d sit in story meetings in the newsroom where we’d talk about the importance of “picking the right person” to write about, a person who readers could empathize with. But it often felt as though someone like Moochie could never be the right person. I was ashamed of myself for being ashamed of him for so many years.
In my first column in 2000, I wrote:
When you have finished this, you would have read the hardest piece I’ve ever written. Many times, fear has forced my fingers away from the keyboard.
For I, too, have felt that certain fear we rarely talk about and almost never admit feeling: the fear of black men…. I’ve felt myself brace, tense up, when walking down a sidewalk toward a group of folks that look like me.
I’ve heard myself think, heard myself say, things that suggest those vile, racist stereotypes reside in me….When I watch the evening news and see a black man accused of a crime, I cringe. But there is no surprise in my eyes. For when I close them and think of criminal, I see black, and male.
Someone who looks just like me.
As I continued to come to grips with my past and my insecurities, I also began to mentor other black men. I was unable to keep my oldest brother out of prison, and later, some of my younger brothers from wanting to follow a similar path. So I thought I was mature enough, ready enough, to help these other people.
In doing so, I was forced to reconsider my relationship with Moochie, to recognize him as the full, complex person he had always been, even when I couldn’t see it.
Then out of the blue, it happened. On Nov. 13, 2014 — more than 32 years after he was sent away — South Carolina finally granted Moochie his freedom.
Almost a decade before Moochie would be released, I sat down with a member of the parole board who happened to be one of my readers. He told me that Moochie’s hair was a major impediment to his potential freedom. That kind of defiance was untenable in a system in which rules had to be strictly adhered to. I told Mama and Willie, and they got word to Moochie. He held onto his beliefs but eventually cut his hair, got out of solitary, and started acting more normally. He began speaking and helped create spelling bees to get younger prisoners interested in education.
He also did something I had long been waiting for: He expressed real remorse for the murder.
I finally met the Bunch family in 2005. I spoke with one of his sisters by phone and another face-to-face in a small diner. They were kind and told me I shouldn’t carry the burden of what my brother had done. They said they did not hate us, but they did not want to see Moochie get released. After we met, I was told they had begun a public petition to ensure he wouldn’t be.
Sometime between 2005 and 2014, they stopped trying to keep him locked up. I can’t say why. His sister had told me she would speak to me once but didn’t want to hear from us again. I’ve honored that request, despite my lingering questions.
A few days after Moochie’s release, my entire family met up at a restaurant.
We hugged for a long time. He was thrilled to see that my wife, Tracy, had grown dreadlocks, as had my daughter. We told him that his last living aunt and her daughter and granddaughters had them, too.
“Power, power, that’s power,” he kept saying, rubbing his short hair. We didn’t tell him that Tracy and our daughter grew dreads because we were tired of spending so much time and money at the hairdresser.
Moochie sat at the head of a long table surrounded by 14 family members. He hunched over his food as though protecting it. He was 54 years old and looked more like one of my uncles than my brother.
There were no balloons. The heavens didn’t throw any extra sunshine our way. None of us cried. In between bites, Moochie would pause, place both hands on his cheeks, both elbows on the table, and look over at a nearby booth filled with nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews he was meeting for the first time.
Mostly, he just sat there, still and observant. Around him, his family members made plans to run a marathon in Myrtle Beach and joked about Duke-UNC basketball and the Dallas Cowboys.
Younger siblings were wondering aloud what to do with him. They talked about getting him a driver's license and a job and figuring out a way to teach him about real life, not that alternative reality he had lived in for so many years.
And he wasn’t totally clear of the correctional system. He still isn’t. His release came with five years of probation and a strict warning that he better show up to every meeting with his parole officer, abstain from drug use, and keep up with his parole fees.
To me, it felt as though he had been released from a cage but put on a leash.
To him, it was bliss.
“Man, for the first couple of nights, I was afraid to go to sleep,” he told me. “I didn't want to wake up and find out it was just a dream.”
About eight months after his release, we decided to retrace some of the miles the family had traveled all those years to see Moochie in prison. I wanted to see if it would feel different with him in the car.
One of our brothers joined us on a ride to Ridgeville. Growing up, we knew Ridgeville, which was south of St. Stephen, for two things: Lieber and MacDougall correctional institutions. According to prison records, Moochie spent time in those prisons in 1986 and 1987. I would have been about 14.
I pulled into a gravel parking lot, the Ford Taurus pointed towards Lieber's rusted exterior.
“We made it,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Hey, man, I don't know if we should park,” Moochie said after I shut off the engine. “They might get suspicious. They might think we’re doing something we ain't supposed to. Let's go.”
I switched the ignition on and we headed back to his place.
It was there that he told me about his attempts to slowly integrate into a world he had never known — about staying on his parole officer’s good side, about how he wanted to teach, take care of his family, and find a job, even if it was part-time and spotty. He didn’t want to do anything that could potentially put him back in prison. He gently asked for a few dollars. I slipped him $40.
“Boy, without family, I don’t know what I would do,” he said, pocketing the money.
As we spoke, his gaze rarely left his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He was tending to his hair. The beginnings of dreadlocks were already starting to re-emerge.
Issac Bailey is a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow and is currently working on a book about his family's story for Other Press.