THE BIG TALK:
An occasional interview series with everyday Americans who are challenging the status quo.
When the roads of life converged for Sidney Davis in a prison courtyard, he took the one he hoped would lead to survival.
“I’m hoping I can inspire folks by what I was able to accomplish,” said Mr. Davis, 74, who spent two decades in prison for murder but followed a straight and narrow path since finding religion behind bars.
Over his 20 years in Virginia’s Lorton Correctional Complex, which has been repurposed as condos, Mr. Davis saw more than his share of violence and redemption, he said.
“I didn’t accept that environment. It would have made me less. It was hard to find inspiration there, and you have to choose to correct yourself,” he told The Washington Times.
Mr. Davis runs Solutions VII, a nonprofit he founded in 1996 to build strong family ties for incarcerated men.
He said he is not surprised by the demonstrations and violence that has erupted in many cities this summer. He said it was inevitable.
“They are responding to the way they have been treated for decades,” Mr. Davis said. “These youngsters have been exposed, misinformed — miseducated, if you will. Our government is supposed to be facilitating the kind of humanity that would end this destruction we see all around, and it isn’t.”
In his opinion, the exceptional fortitude he has exhibited is embedded in people, an attitude fostered by the circle of exceptional friends that grew around him during his incarceration. They included business tycoons, senators, former NFL scouts, Washington journalists and even a president’s son.
The key lay outside the walls, he said.
“It’s all about family reunification, immediate and extended, because everything seems designed to tear the family apart,” he said.
Mr. Davis’ own family and background didn’t set him up for incarceration. Though his childhood included trauma, he makes it clear that his is not the story of a man who had no hope from the beginning.
His father was a military man, and his mother worked hard at various jobs. Although wounded by segregation — he still smarts from the rejection he and his black friends received at swimming pools and playgrounds — Mr. Davis said he always felt like a part of a cohesive society.
“Black people were connected to one another back then. That’s a paradigm that’s been interrupted,” he said. “I always had role models; I just didn’t hear them. Those things were there. I just didn’t pay attention.”
Instead, he chose the needle, and heroin addiction found him, at the age of 21, in serious trouble that left him wounded and another man dead.
“I was involved with criminal activity, but I didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “I had a role in it.”
At age 22, Mr. Davis was sentenced to 20 years to life for murder. He entered the Lorton complex in 1972.
In 1973, he said, after long stints in solitary confinement, he had a sudden Christian transformation. He was uncertain, though, until the night in February 1975 when he was stabbed three times while watching a movie.
“A lot of men lost their lives on movie night,” he said grimly. “I’d been stabbed in the back, the leg and the forehead, and I ran down the hall, bleeding. But when I saw the guard, I turned around and went back into the general population.”
In Mr. Davis’ mind, that turnabout meant forgiveness. By walking away from the incident, he proved he had conquered his “instinct to retaliate.”
“At that second, I knew this will never be forgotten but I have a greater thing to do,” he said.
Just what that would mean took shape later that year when the undefeated Lorton football team hosted a scouting event for people in the NFL and the fledgling World Football League. On the field that day, he met Joseph Wheeler. Mr. Davis remembers Mr. Wheeler as a swashbuckling businessman and oceanographer.
Mr. Wheeler liked what he saw in Mr. Davis and the lessons he had begun teaching inside Lorton through the office of residents’ concern, which he created. That led to an introduction to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Mr. Davis began running a Special Olympics camp in the prison courtyard with coaches he selected from the other inmates.
“They’d bring them to Lorton, and we trained 1,500 Special Olympians in 10 years,” said Mr. Davis, who is enormously proud of his work there. “You get a man involved with children like that, and you have less killing, less destructiveness. It gives an orientation to men who can’t help themselves.”
It was through Lorton prayer breakfasts that Mr. Davis began a long friendship with syndicated columnist Cal Thomas (whose column runs in The Washington Times), his wife, Charlotte Ray, and former Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.
The web of connections would be the envy of a Washington insider, let alone someone inside Lorton, so it was hardly surprising that President Carter turned to Mr. Davis to give guidance to his son Chip, who was wrestling with drug problems.
Though he was paroled in November 1992 as a college graduate, Mr. Davis’ travails did not end at the prison gate. His youngest son, a promising athlete, was felled by five bullets in Fort Washington in 2003. The crime remains unsolved.
He would think about his son while driving a Metrobus, where he showed solicitude for passengers. When he helped a blind rider across the street, it did not surprise rider Courtland Milloy, a Washington Post columnist who met Mr. Davis in Lorton in 1981.
Even his bus driving career was not without incident. He was briefly dismissed in 2006 after The Post wrote about his expressions of support behind the wheel for a mayoral candidate who promised to help former inmates find work.
Mr. Davis regained his job and eventually retired in 2016.
Today, Mr. Davis is with his third wife. He lost previous partners to cancer and pulmonary disease. He has three surviving children and acknowledges that the relationships need more work.
Mr. Davis consults Prince George’s County Council members and police officers on violence and recidivism issues.
Even with his storied career, Mr. Davis has no surefire recipe to impart.
“There is no magic formula,” he said. “It’s work, hard work.”