The Rich Historical Tradition of Black Anti-Death Penalty Activism

by Sophie Trist



From anti-slavery abolitionism to today, Black activists have played a central role in the fight to end capital punishment. Black activists like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and others intuitively recognized that the same violent, dehumanizing mentality that spawns and promotes racism also supports killing masquerading as justice. It’s no accident that Black people make up 42% of the death row population, that 75% of victims in capital cases are white, and that the greatest predictor of a state's propensity for capital punishment is its history of lynching.


In 1846, the state government of Michigan became the first government in the English-speaking world to abolish the death penalty. When the legislature considered reinstituting the practice in 1881, abolitionist powerhouse Sojourner Truth, herself formerly enslaved, testified against the proposition, saying, “[w]e are the makers of murderers if we do it.” Sojourner Truth recognized that the violence of capital punishment only begets more violence and trauma.


Frederick Douglass was also very explicit and outspoken in rejecting the death penalty. In October of 1858, he called capital punishment “a mockery of justice”, as well as that "[m]urder is not a cure for murder.” Statistics support Douglass’s assertion; there is no proof that capital punishment deters future crimes. Douglass’s call for enlightened societies to abandon vengeance presages today’s movement for restorative justice.


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also recognized the inhumanity of capital punishment, believing that it went against both God’s Beloved Community and the reasoned judgment of modern criminology. In 1958, Dr. King and his supporters peacefully protested the execution of Jeremiah Reeves, a Black teenager from Alabama who was accused of raping a white woman and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Like Sojourner Truth, Dr. King realized that killing can never be justice, and more violence will never foster a culture of peace and life.


Thurgood Marshall, civil rights icon and the first African American Supreme Court justice, followed in this rich historical tradition. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment to be unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia due to arbitrary application based on racial bias. Justice Marshall wrote: “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute … We celebrate [our] regard for civilization and humanity by shunning capital punishment.” It is worth noting that of the five justices in the Furman majority, only Marshall and one other justice believed that the death penalty was fundamentally unconstitutional.


Today, Black opposition and activism remain crucial in the fight to end capital punishment. Studies show wide racial disparity in public opinion on the death penalty. The year 2020 saw support for capital punishment hit a historic low, with only 54% of Americans in favor and 51% of non-white adults morally opposed. Virginia is currently poised to become the twenty-third state and the first southern state to abolish capital punishment, with proponents – Black religious leaders prominent among them – linking the death penalty with the state’s history of racist violence. The Black Lives Matter movement has also called for abolition of the death penalty on the grounds that the practice is not simply an injustice against specific Black individuals, but a war on the Black community itself, with Black lives systemically devalued in every facet of the criminal justice system. From the death row exonerees who lead Witness to Innocence to the late and great executioner turned abolitionist Jerry Givens, scores of African Americans bear public witness to capital punishment’s inhumanity, drawing on the historical tradition of slave narratives in the abolition movement of the 1800s.


Perhaps no Black-led organization has done more to abolish capital punishment than the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded in 1989 by public interest lawyer and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson. Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won relief or release for 135 death row inmates and argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court, including a 2019 landmark case in which the ruling protected death row prisoners with dementia. Mr. Stevenson is a professor at the New York University School of Law and author of the best-selling book Just Mercy. In addition to challenging the death penalty and other criminal justice abuses and creating a powerful antiracist educational toolkit, EJI has launched the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, which link America’s history of slavery and lynching directly to modern forms of racial violence including mass incarceration and capital punishment.


Since the nineteenth century, Black Americans have fought for a more redemptive, life-affirming vision of justice. People like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thurgood Marshall recognized that the death penalty is an assault on racial equity and human dignity, and their witness has paved the way for today’s Black anti-death penalty activists. Contemporary groups like Witness to Innocence, Black Lives Matter, and Equal Justice Initiative are picking up where these individuals – and countless others – left off to fight for a more just, rehumanized justice system.


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