They didn’t say much to each other as they got closer to where they were going.
There was not much to say, after all. They were on their way to tell a man he was going to die.
In Clement’s eyes, an execution was serious business. He would often check to see if there had been any error that would justify changing the sentence, but that was not the case that day. He and Marshall were making their way to a small prison cell to tell a man the exact date of his last breath.
It wasn’t something Marshall took lightly either. As chaplain of the Tennessee State Prison, his was often the last human voice a person would hear before they faced the fatal shock of the electric chair. Though the inmates had committed crimes punishable by the death penalty, Marshall still believed that God was able to give a sense of freedom and peace to people ensnared by their own mistakes.
The account of that long walk, which took place in 1959, is one of many stories Dr. Eddie Roberson recounts in his book “Chaplain of Death Row,” a biography about his father, Marshall.
“Growing up, I heard my father telling some of the most incredible stories in his sermons and around the dinner table,” Eddie said.
His father, “a son of Bradley County,” was a small-town preacher who eventually made his way to Nashville and became the chaplain at a prison housing death row inmates.
Eddie writes about Marshall marrying his wife, Mary, when he was 17. He was sitting in North Cleveland Church of God one Sunday and saw Mary, who was 16 at the time, singing in the choir. He introduced himself after church and had “suddenly developed a love for music” and joined the choir by the time the next Sunday rolled around. He soon learned that she was an orphan living in the local Church of God children’s home. While residents of the orphanage were not allowed to date, Marshall began escorting Mary home from church on Sunday afternoons. They fell in love as they conversed during their walks and got married the same year.
Marshall had shared with her that he wanted to be a church pastor and was appointed to a small church called Grasshopper Church of God, in the area now known as Birchwood, not long after they were married.
After that, he pastored two other churches in small Tennessee towns, taking a break at one point to attend a year of Bible school in Sevierville.
During his first run for governor, Clement held a fish fry and political rally near where Marshall was living, and the two men met for the first time. That later led to a friendship between them that would eventually lead to Marshall working for the Tennessee government as well.
In 1952, Marshall and Mary moved to Nashville to pastor the Meridian Street Church of God. Clement had told Marshall to come see him when he became governor, and Marshall did just that, walking into his office to say hello one day.
A few months later, Marshall received a call from a state commissioner asking him if he wanted to become the chaplain of the Jordonia Juvenile Detention Center in Nashville. While continuing to pastor the Meridian Street church, Marshall established a rapport with the young men there.
About two years later, he was called upon to become chaplain of the Tennessee State Prison. It housed some of the state’s most violent criminals, but he was able to start a weekly Sunday church service in the prison, even adding music into the mix.
When he was working at the Tennessee State Prison, Marshall would often speak and pray with death row inmates until the very end of their lives, often staying in the prison with them overnight. Eddie said his father told him that, when the time came, the air would be silent except for him praying with the inmate one last time. Marshall had to back away while he prayed so he would be a safe distance away from the electric chair. Saying “amen” was the understood signal for the executioner to flip the switch.
“His ‘Amen’ was the last word a convicted man heard,” Eddie said, adding that his father witnessed seven such executions over the course of his career.
Later, Marshall went on to pastor a church in Chattanooga and serve on the Pardon and Parole Board for the state of Tennessee. However, the last conversations he had with death row inmates are memories that most lingered in his mind, said Eddie.
While the book is about his father, Eddie said he also told the stories of some of the relatives he said shaped who Marshall would become.
“To tell a story about a person, you have to look at the roots,” Eddie said. “I had to give a little background.”
One such relative was Homer Simpson, a former Cleveland police chief who was executed for his contribution to a murder that Eddie described as a “robbery gone wrong” when Marshall was a young boy. Because of his uncle’s experience on death row, Marshall learned to have compassion for those who had made the decision to pursue crime.
“It made a terrible impression upon him,” Eddie said.
Eddie said “Chaplain of Death Row” can teach readers of “the impact a person can have” upon people, much the way his father changed the lives of the death row inmates with whom he spoke and prayed until the very end.
“It also shows the grace and mercy of God,” Eddie said. “Even in that dark cell, they were not forsaken by God.”
He said Marshall, who is now living in Cleveland at the age of 91, told him he is grateful his story is being told. Marshall once told all of his children that, while he will not be able to leave them much in terms of real estate and other assets when he passes away, he has tried to make sure that he leaves them “a good name,” said Eddie.
“He was faithful to God. He was faithful to his family, and he is still living an honorable life,” Eddie said.
As a former director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority who is currently working as a private energy consultant, he said he continues to be inspired by his father’s legacy today and hopes readers will be, as well.
Chaplain of Death Row is available for purchase from Amazon.com or directly from the author. For more information about the book, visit the website ChaplainofDeathRow.com.