During a quiet Saturday evening on Feb. 6 behind the walls of SCI-Phoenix, the maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania where Bill Cosby has served two and a half years of a three-to-10-year sentence for indecent aggravated assault, Anthony “Benny-Do” Sutton reflected on the impact of the prison’s biggest celebrity.
On that same evening nearly 164 miles to the south in Alexandria, Va., Dr. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church, devoted part of his sermon to the imprisoned comedian’s impact on popular culture.
Earlier in Chicago, civil rights legend the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. made a public plea to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to release Cosby, noting the 83-year-old comedian’s age and health as the pandemic rages.
And in New York City, the Brothers of Sh’ma Yisrael Hebrew Israelite Congregation also stood in support of Cosby.
In each case, the lasting legacy of Cosby and the iconic “The Cosby Show” remained front and center. It has also come full circle. And Cosby has taken notice.
“I would like to personally thank these great men and teachers of God’s scriptures for standing by and supporting me with the truth and the facts,” the comedian tweeted about the Brothers of Sh’ma, particularly singling out Na Hasi and Prince Nat.
“Please watch these brothers … Shabbat Shalom to my brothers and sisters Dina, and her mother, Verita, and her sister. Thank you very much and I can feel your prayers,” Cosby wrote.
In a separate statement, Cosby thanked Rev. Jackson.
“Mr. & Mrs. Cosby are forever grateful to Rev. Jackson and his family because he has been working feverishly to get the state of Pennsylvania to release Mr. Cosby since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic began back in April,” Cosby said through his spokesman, Andrew Wyatt.
At SCI-Phoenix, Sutton echoed appreciation.
“The old man has had a huge impact on us men here inside and a lot of people didn’t think that he would have the influence that he’s had,” Sutton, who respectfully refers to Cosby as “The old man,” remarked in a phone call from SCI-Phoenix, the sprawling 128-acre prison complex just outside of Philadelphia.
“The way he’s enlightened us, the way he’s encouraged us to stand up and be men in the community . . . and he shouldn’t even be in here,” added Sutton, who also has a son incarcerated at SCI-Phoenix.
Sutton helps lead Mann Up, a prison program designed to help change African-American men’s lives with long sentences. The program empowers and encourages Black males to be better fathers, husbands and community members.
Cosby, while not a member, has provided a significant boost to the program, Sutton told NNPA Newswire.
“The old man got us together and told us that a man is judged by how he treats his mother and how he treats his wife and family. He has instilled in us that a man cannot be considered a man if he doesn’t provide,” Sutton continued.
“He comes in here, and he doesn’t act like he’s better than anyone. He keeps it simple. Look, he is a political prisoner. He is in here not for a crime, but adultery. But he does not look for favors and with all his money and resources, he has nothing more than what we have, no extras when he could easily have extras.”
Sutton has endeared himself to Cosby who directed his team outside to assist Sutton in preparing the inmate’s appeals.
Lest We Forget Cosby’s Positive Contributions
Since Cosby’s 2018 conviction, the debate has raged on whether the star’s legacy and his hit 1980s sitcom, “The Cosby Show,” remains worth preserving.
But a May 11, 1992, Los Angeles Times article noted that Cosby is personally responsible for the employment, encouragement and artistic support of more Black writers than anyone in television history.
Cosby confirmed that we could genuinely raise and educate our kids to be racially proud and socially responsible human beings, the article continued.
“Cosby showed Blacks could be well-to-do and possess commensurate class. He showed that a Black man could not only get a job but also that he and his wife can have thriving professional careers,” the Los Angeles Times published.
In Virginia, Dr. Wesley recalled living in Chicago during the 1980s when he said gangs were abundant.
“What was amazing was that statistics proved by data that Thursday nights were the most peaceful nights in Chicago, with fewer murders on Thursday night than any other night,” Wesley told his congregation.
“Phone calls to 911 reduced and gang violence was not rampant on Thursday evenings which were the most peaceful times in Black communities all around the country. Because Thursday night, ‘The Cosby Show’ came on, and even hardened criminals and wanna-be gangstas sat down on Thursday night to watch ‘The Cosby Show.’”
“It was responsible for opening doors for all Black casting shows like the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Martin” and others. ‘The Cosby Show’ gave us Black family at its best.”
In his appeal to Gov. Wolf, Rev. Jackson also cited the impact Cosby has had in the Black community and beyond.
“He’s 84 and blind. Who’s he going to hurt?” the noted civil rights leader told the Philadelphia Tribune. “He should be home and free and away from all of those germs.”
“The government needs to do something,” Jackson said emphatically. “He shouldn’t still be in prison.”
The activist said he has known Cosby since 1968 and has seen his humanitarian side.
“He’s helped so many, many people,” Jackson said, referring to the many donations Cosby and his wife, Camille, have made to HBCUs and other organizations over the years.
“I’m coming forward to speak out because I believe in justice too.”
Back at SCI-Phoenix, Sutton recalled meeting Cosby behind bars for the first time.
“I said to him that I wanted to ask a favor. I said I need you to give me your word that you would come over on a Saturday and sit in on the Mann Up organization. And he told me, ‘Benny-Do, if God lets me live, I’ll be there,’” Sutton recollected.
“I told him we were putting an organization together where we could change the narrative, that we could go home and be decent people, decent citizens and decent neighbors and change our way of thinking in our way of living. So, Mr. Cosby came over and he heard me MC the program.”
“I introduced him and there were 420 people there, and we all gave him a standing ovation. He is a man who went through the Jim Crow Era and the marches for civil rights of the 1960s. He mentioned that he is blind and said he could not see us but he created such an atmosphere for us to enlighten us with his wisdom. He had everyone’s attention. He’s had a hell of an impact,” Sutton said.