Bobby Joe Leaster had a basketball scholarship to Jackson State University in Mississippi, next to his native Alabama.
But the segregated Jim Crow South he grew up in held little appeal for a young Black man who had big ideas. So as the 1960s ended, he passed on college and hopped on a bus and headed north, from Reform, Alabama, to Boston, Massachusetts, which he considered a cradle of liberty.
At first, the newfound freedom was exhilarating. He got a job, began a relationship with a white woman, which was unheard of back home, and knew he had made the right decision to leave Alabama.
But even up North, even in Boston, he was, to many, still just another Black guy, and when a storekeeper in Dorchester was shot dead in a robbery in 1970, he was rounded up, like one of the usual suspects.
The case against him was weak. No forensics. No fingerprints. They didn’t have DNA back then. But they had prejudice, and faulty eyewitness identifications, and before you knew it, Bobby Joe was doing life.
For a guy whose luck was so lousy, Bobby Joe got lucky when a father-and-son team of lawyers, Bob and Chris Muse, took up his case. He had lost all his previous appeals.
“God sent the Muses to me,” Bobby Joe told me eight years ago, after Big Bob Muse’s funeral.
It took them nine years, and they never took a dime, but the Muses were able to prove Bobby Joe was innocent, and he walked out of the prison where he’d spent 15 years and lost all his innocence.
“Bobby had every right to be bitter, angry, rage at the people and the system that railroaded him,” Chris Muse was saying. “Instead, he forgave everybody who had wronged him and decided he would do everything in his power to make sure other kids didn’t end up in prison.”
Like Nelson Mandela, who forgave his jailers and set out to bind up South Africa’s wounds, Bobby Joe Leaster stayed in Boston and got a job as a street worker for the city, to help at-risk kids. He and Tracy Litthcut were a dynamic tag team. In the 1990s, wherever you saw Bobby Joe, you saw Tracy. They saved a lot of kids.
“Bob had such a good rapport with the kids on the street,” Litthcut, now director of the city’s Office of Public Safety, told me. “He was in prison with some of these kids’ fathers. He had street cred. They listened to him.”
So did Bernie Fitzgerald, the chief probation officer at Dorchester District Court, and Bill Stewart, the legendary probation officer. Bobby Joe couldn’t save everybody, but whenever he told Fitzgerald and Stewart that a kid who had been locked up deserved another chance, they took his word for it.
“Some people will say Bob saved hundreds of kids,” Tracy Litthcut said. “I’d say it was thousands. The ripple effect was enormous.”
Last month, there was a fire at Bobby Joe’s apartment in Mattapan. Boston firefighters saved Bobby Joe but he was badly burned. His son, RJ, kept vigil at Brigham and Women’s, and his friends, even those who had drifted from church, began praying. Transit Police Lieutenant Mark Gillespie, who met with Bobby Joe every day and loved him like a brother, started a prayer chain, and it seemed to work, as Bobby Joe began to improve. Then, just as suddenly, he died last week.
Gillespie is crushed. Bobby Joe’s photograph is the screensaver on his computer. As Bobby Joe approached 70, he talked about retiring. But he kept working.
“He was the best human being I knew," Gillespie said. "He made me want to be a better human being.”
We’ll never know how many people Bobby Joe Leaster saved. The Legislature was poised to reinstate capital punishment in the 1990s, but his story persuaded enough lawmakers to change their minds.
When he learned Bobby Joe had died, Mayor Marty Walsh asked for a moment of silence before his daily COVID-19 briefing.
“He loved his work,” the mayor said, “and our community loved him.”
Chris Muse, the lawyer who became his brother, said Bobby Joe helped not just inner city kids on their way to prison but those on their way to college. He talked to suburban kids, too, describing a reality they might find unfathomable.
Every year, he and the Muses would speak to the Judicial Youth Corps program run by the great Boston Public Schools stalwart Jerry Howland in the Suffolk Superior Court room where Bobby Joe was sentenced.
Every year some kid would ask the same question, “Why aren’t you bitter?” And every year, Bobby Joe would give the same answer.
“Because I had faith,” Bobby Joe would say. “Because I had hope. Because I believed that God had a plan for me.”
At one of those sessions, a woman who is a lawyer asked him if he regretted coming to Boston.
No, he said, because then he wouldn’t have met Bob and Chris Muse, or Jerry Howland, or Tracy Litthcut or all the people who made his life better, he wouldn’t have had RJ, the best son a father could ask for.
“Dad always said it was pointless to be bitter,” RJ told me. “It got in the way of helping others.”
When the pandemic lifts, they will hold a proper memorial service for Bobby Joe Leaster, attended by dozens of people who work for a criminal justice system that failed him then felt his embrace. And by dozens of men who never heard a steel door shut behind them because a good son of Alabama decided to make Boston his home.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.