Troy Davis failed to prove to correction and legal officials that he was innocent of killing a police officer 22 years ago, but in the eyes of NAACP President Benjamin Jealous he has all the attributes of a hero.
Jealous told a group of social workers and teachers Saturday who were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the University of Maryland School of Social Work that they could use Davis' experience to shape their own life journeys.
Davis was executed by lethal injection last week for the 1989 killing of off-duty officer Mark McPhail in Savannah, Ga., in a case that made headlines around the world. The execution came after some witnesses recanted earlier testimony and others fingered another man in the murder.
Jealous, who pushed for Davis' release, said Davis should be held up for sticking to his stance that he was innocent and showing dignity and humanity even as he was about to die.
Jealous recalled Davis' last conversation, which he heard from witnesses in the room, before Davis was executed.
He told the victim's family: "I personally did not kill your son, father and brother. I am innocent."
To his lawyers he said: "Keep digging. Keep fighting."
He told guards in the room: "May God forgive you for what you are about to do. May God bless all of you."
"In those three declared statements you see an honest candor and grace that says exactly who and what you are," Jealous told the crowd.
Jealous was the keynote speaker for the kickoff of the School of Social Work anniversary celebration. The theme of the day: "Bending the Arc toward Justice," a play on a quotation made popular by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice," King said in speeches throughout his civil rights career. Bostonian abolitionist Theodore Parker was the original author of the quote in the 1800s.
Richard Barth, dean of the School of Social Work, said the day's event was meant to remind people of the activist role that social workers can play.
"It is a fundamental part of what we do," Barth said.
Jealous, head of one of the oldest advocacy groups in the country, has roots in social work. He studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he earned a master's degree in comparative social research, which was under the school of social work. His grandmother and his father-in-law were both social workers.
"Social work is a means and ends to social rights," he told the crowd.
The Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People got involved with the Davis case several years ago. In 2009, the civil rights organization launched a campaign called "I AM TROY," to try to get his conviction overturned because of a lack of physical evidence.
Jealous had met with Davis in jail. In the hours before his death, he led a rally and lobbied the Department of Justice to intervene on the grounds of civil rights violations.
Davis' lawyers petitioned the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court the day of his death. The highest court declined to intervene.
Jealous tweeted shortly after the execution: "In death, Troy Davis will live on as a reminder of a broken justice system that kills an innocent man while a murderer walks free."
Jealous told the crowd Saturday that social work and social activism can be tough work, but that faith can get them through it.
"If you refuse to let anything take away the humanity that empowers you to love anyone, even when they are trying to stick a needle in your arm to kill you, you can achieve anything. For very few people can do that," he said.