Murphy Davis, 72, advocate for homeless, death row inmates

Murphy Davis, a determined advocate for homeless people and death row inmates in Georgia, died Thursday, after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. (Alison Reeder via AP)
Murphy Davis, a determined advocate for homeless people and death row inmates in Georgia, died Thursday, after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. (Alison Reeder via AP)

Credit: Alison Reeder

Credit: Alison Reeder

Murphy Davis, a determined advocate for death row inmates and homeless people in Georgia, died Thursday of complications related to cancer. She was 72.

Davis had been in hospice care in Baltimore, where she and her husband, Eduard Loring, lived after leaving Atlanta a few years earlier. Her death was confirmed by their daughter, Hannah Murphy Buc.

Davis, a Presbyterian minister, left an indelible imprint on Georgia, where for decades she worked with homeless people and was a regular visitor to death row inmates.

Murphy Davis leads a gathering in song outside of the Atlanta City Detention Center where they had gathered for a worship service. Behind her (left to right) Ralph Dukes, Ed Potts and Tony Johnson. (AJC Photo/Jonathan Davis)
Murphy Davis leads a gathering in song outside of the Atlanta City Detention Center where they had gathered for a worship service. Behind her (left to right) Ralph Dukes, Ed Potts and Tony Johnson. (AJC Photo/Jonathan Davis)

Credit: JONATHAN NEWTON

Credit: JONATHAN NEWTON

“It is not always an easy task to affirm that even a murderer is a child of God, but we know that it is true,” she told The Associated Press in 1986. “There is no act, no matter how vicious, that entirely blots out that identity.”

Among her numerous honors, she received a 1991 fellowship from the Petra Foundation, which recognizes the work of “unsung heroes” for social justice, and she is listed among Robert Shetterly’s Americans Who Tell The Truth.

Davis became a full-time activist as a theological student in the mid-1970s, after a key Supreme Court decision upheld the death penalty. Along with her husband and fellow Presbyterian minister, she made it her life’s work to fight against the death penalty, advocate for homeless people and press for racial and economic justice and the abolition of war.

In 1979, carrying a 10-day-old baby, they opened an Atlanta night shelter for the homeless, their daughter said. Then in 1981, the couple and others founded Open Door Community near downtown Atlanta. Based in a large, old home, they housed and fed many of the homeless people living on nearby streets while working for larger social justice goals.

They organized protests that won concessions from the city of Atlanta and prompted the city’s public hospital to reverse its plans to impose a co-pay on its poorest patients. They also demonstrated at the state Capitol to oppose executions, and Davis made innumerable visits to prisoners on Georgia’s death row.

Anti-death penalty attorney Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, called Davis “a person with deep conviction and resolve, constantly looking for ways to bring light into dark places,” and wrote that she “has actually spent more time in jails and prisons than most people who have never been convicted of a crime.”

He said Open Door gave him and other activists a place to be nurtured in spirit as well as to think, talk and strategize.

“People from every different sort of life experience sat together at table and learned about one another and figured out how to share life,” said her daughter, now a nursing professor at the University of Maryland. “The opportunity to grow up with such a wide and loving perspective on the world and see how to work constantly for justice through that love and those relationships has informed everything that I’ve ever done. And she was the center of that.”

The Open Door Community closed in 2017 as the founders grew older and the neighborhood gentrified.

Her memoir “Surely Goodness and Mercy” was published two weeks before her death.

Davis’s survivors include her husband and their daughter, son-in-law Jason and granddaughter Michaela, and a sister and two brothers.

ExploreView Murphy Davis's obituary, send flowers and sign the guestbook.
ExploreFrom 1996: A longform profile of the Rev. Murphy Davis, when she was battling cancer

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