“Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” features a sleepy little town in North Carolina where nine months out of the year it is bustling with college life and the other three months people are sweating in the Carolina heat. Burlington, North Carolina, I can say from experience, doesn’t have much going on. There’s a wide divide between the rich and the poor (still) and a lot of economic activity results from the university in the small town of Elon.
I first put “Picking Cotton” on my TBR when I read about it in another book, “Subliminal.” When “Picking Cotton” was mentioned, it was discussing how sometimes eyewitness accounts are not the most reliable source of testimony. I found this fact alone interesting, but I was doubly interested because “Picking Cotton” took place in the town I called home for four years, Elon, NC.
I wasn’t naive while I was in college. I knew terrible things happened in Elon all the time. People were victims of theft, people were held up at gunpoint, and people were raped. Bad things happen every day, even in a place you call home.
“Picking Cotton” is the story of how two women were raped by the same man in the same night, but the wrong man was sent to prison for 11 years because of a false eyewitness testimony. Jennifer Thompson woke up one summer night to find a man she had never met before in her room. When she stirred, he jumped on top of her, held a knife to her throat, and threatened to hurt her if she screamed. Jennifer remained as calm as anyone possibly could in that situation. She committed herself to remembering everything about this man that she possibly could. She studied his facial features, what he was wearing, and the way his voice sounded. All while she was being raped. Jennifer, by the grace of quick-thinking and helpful neighbors, was able to escape her assailant. She was able to help draft a sketch of what her attacker looked like. And she was able to catch him and put him behind bars. At least, that’s what she thought. In fact, due to her incredibly moving eye-witness account, the wrong man was serving time in prison for a crime he never committed.
“Picking Cotton” alternates between Jennifer and Ronald’s point-of-view. In those transitions, one can fully understand how each person truly thought they were doing what was best for them at the time. Personally, I came to admire how Ronald kept a calm head and a steady belief that justice would be served one day to the man who truly committed the crimes he was in prison for. “Picking Cotton” is as much a story about the unreliable nature of eyewitness accounts as it is a story about the downfalls of the American justice system.
But, it’s not all bad. It’s actually quite a beautiful story about faith, redemption, and friendship. Someone who reads “Picking Cotton” can’t help but be inspired by Ronald’s unwavering belief that he will make it out of prison one day. His ability to forgive Jennifer but also the man who lied about committing the crimes that Ronald was in prison for for all those years. His true goodness down to his core. One also can’t help but empathize with Jennifer, especially as a female who attended the same university. Feel moved by her bravery and strength for surviving such a terrible ordeal and also for testifying about it. Feel relieved when the right man is finally held responsible for his actions, and Jennifer can learn to forgive as Ronald has.
“Picking Cotton” shares an important story about rape and the criminal justice system. It shares a story about standing up for what you believe in and admitting when you are wrong. But most importantly, it shares a story about what can happen when we never give up, believe in ourselves, and learn to forgive those who have wronged us.