An inmate’s fight for constitutional rights

Fred CruzIn 1960, at age 21, Fred Cruz was arrested for robbery, convicted and sentenced to 50 years on a Texas prison farm. The San Antonio native denied committing the crimes but couldn’t afford a lawyer to appeal his case. With only an 8th grade education, Cruz read every law book he could find and filed his own appeal.

Fred Cruz’s story is now an independent film by producer/director Susanne Mason and will debut at SMU at 6 p.m. April 15, 2009 in McCord Auditorium, Dallas Hall. “Writ Writer: One Man’s Journey for Justice” tells the story of Cruz’s evolution into a jailhouse lawyer, the legal battle he waged against physical and racial violence, and how he used writs of habeas corpus to secure the constitutional rights of Texas prisoners.

Told by wardens, convicts and former prisoners who knew Cruz, “Writ Writer” uses contemporary and archival film footage to show the transformation of a prisoner and a prison system still haunted by their pasts. The film was honored as an official selection of the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival. The SMU screening is sponsored by the University’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies in Dedman College.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on prisons, rights, race and violence featuring the following participants:

  • Rick Halperin, moderator, director of SMU’s Human Rights Education Program
  • Susanne Mason, director and producer of “Writ Writer”
  • Robert Chase, Clements Center Fellow and author of the upcoming book, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Race, Reform and Punishment in Texas Prisons and the Nation, 1945-1990
  • Ernest McMillan, civil rights veteran and community activist
  • Reginald Gordon, community activist

The program is free and open to the public; advance registration is required. Register online at the Clements Center website or contact Ruth Ann Elmore at 214-768-3684.

Calendar Highlights: March 17, 2009

Civil rights, social justice: SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts and its Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Department present a week-long symposium on the importance of understanding and valuing diversity and how we conceive of, and practice, communication. “Keeping the Faith: Civil Rights and Social Justice 45 Years After Freedom Summer” takes place March 16-21, 2009 and will feature participants in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, as well as artists, professionals and politicians who have kept the organizing tradition of civil rights alive in America. Events include lectures, panel presentations, a musical performance, photography exhibit and screening of an award-winning documentary. For more information, contact Victoria Winkelman, 214-768-4359, or visit SMU News.

Texas prison farmClements Center Lecture: Clements Center Fellow Robert Chase will discuss the successes and failures of post-World War II Texas prison reform – highly regarded as modern and efficient for its time but with an internal reality at odds with its public reputation, which collapsed when inmates, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, revolted. His Brown Bag Lecture, “Jail House Attorneys, Building Tenders and Slaves of the State: Prisoners’ Rights, Internal Economies and Sexual Violence in Texas Prisons, 1945-80,” takes place at noon March 18, 2009 in the Texana Room, DeGolyer Library. Bring your lunch. (Image courtesy of Bruce Jackson, University of Buffalo.)

Rhythm and Dhoom 2009: The SMU Indian Student Association presents its annual talent show, a statewide dancing and singing competition hosted by Comedy Central’s Daniel Nainan. Doors open at 6:15 p.m., and performances start at 7 p.m. March 21 in McFarlin Auditorium. Tickets are required for the event; admission is $12 pre-sale and $15 at the door. For more information, visit the ISA website.

Watch the ISA’s YouTube talent show preview:

Compiled by Theresa Nelson (’09).