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There is no precedent for justice
and equality in capital punishment

An Opinion on the Death Penalty

by Rose Sanders
Selma, Alabama

Now, I have no doubt. I am unequivocally against capital punishment. I was in downtown Manhattan en route to the United Nations when I heard the news. Henry Francis Hays, a white man and former Ku Klux Klansman, had been executed for killing Michael Donald, a 19 year-old black youth. Michael was in my family by marriage. We shared the same uncle. For a moment, I felt a strange sorrow. Initially it was unexplainable; history had been made. Death row is a familiar place for men of color, but white men have been extended an unspoken immunity for the unspeakable lynching, castration and murder of black men. Hays randomly hunted Michael like a wild animal, beat him 120 times with a limb, tortured him unmercifully and then hung him from a tree.

Justice! Revenge! My intellect tugged at my heart, but it could not dissipate this strange sorrow. My mind rushed back to the time Michael was killed. His vicious death reminded me of our persistent vulnerability in a nation where the rope and lynching of black people were once no more illegal than the slaughter of pigs. The silence and absence of white outrage revisited my consciousness .

Our society has devalued the humanity of people of color for over 400 years. Consequently, black life can be taken by a black man or a white man with relative impunity. Fertilized and cultivated by slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and tokenistic integration, those who planted this harvest of racial prejudice must share some responsibility for our current racial hate groups. Thirty years ago, hate crimes against blacks were ignored and rarely prosecuted. Even when the law ceased to plant and nurture seeds of racial hatred, it did not take the necessary precautions to remove the contaminated soil. Some wild seeds continued to grow, sometimes uncontrollably; prejudice has no boundaries. From non-violence, simple racial and class prejudice, sprouted the KKK, skin heads and the murderers of Michael Donald and 158 people in Oklahoma City.

Following the end of legal segregation, the seeds of racial prejudice reappeared in disguise. The devaluing of black children persisted through tracking and other unjust educational practices which separated and stigmatized black children and gave them far less. Albeit, the circle has not been broken. Be not deceived! The execution of Mr. Hays is not a sign of color blind justice. It is the deceptive attempt to further legitimate murder. More black men will continue to be executed than white men; more black men will continue to kill black men and escape the proverbial eye for an eye.

Black self-hatred, generated by the same conditions which allowed these hate crimes to grow and fester, also manifest in unprecedented Black on Black violence, but death row is rarely the final journey for the accused or the convicted. When a system devalues a man's life, it makes it easier for the devalued in that system to take a life. Racial prejudice is an infectious social disease that grows and spreads like wild fire, fueled by the poverty and "savage inequality" it creates.

I tried to comprehend the racism and hatred that caused a person, once an innocent child, to kill like a wild animal, a man he ironically perceived to be the animal. How did he arrive at this perception, how did he become the animal; why?

My mind then focused on Timothy McVeigh whose hatred had moved him to even kill his own; white women and children were among his massacred.

Again, I recalled the lack of righteous outrage, the kind that exploded with the death of Nicole Simpson. By this time, we had reached the U.N. where Jerusalem, my daughter of the heart, works. I wondered if there would ever be peace with justice in the world. Can there be peace when we take an eye for an eye, a life for a life Where is the justice? Timothy McVeigh took 168 lives. Should we kill him 168 times? Where is the justice for a man who only took one life?

The pathetic portrayal of McVeigh as the good kid gone bad is painfully amusing. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a black man on the front cover of Newsweek with the caption: "Should this man die? If a Black Panther or a black "anybody" had killed 168 people, the issue of the death penalty wouldn't have been debated. The recent debate is welcomed but also precipitated by the skin color of McVeigh. Regardless of the jury's decision to give McVeigh the death penalty, the debate, per se, again reminds us of the differences between black and white life in America.

When George Wallace was governor, I urged him to deny a pardon to a white man convicted of killing a black man. He responded by saying he was granting the pardon because the man had repented. Dead men can't repent. Neither can black men... is the message we hear loud and clear.

And what about the truly innocent How do we resurrect them from law-made graves? Do we expect our sorrow to return their life or do we care? Then my mind fell on Jesus. He was an innocent victim of capital punishment. Jesus forgave the guilty who hung beside him and emphatically renounced capital punishment.

The religious right, who claim to follow and love Jesus, reject his example with its adamant belief in capital punishment while fiercely opposing abortions. Of course, this belief is selective and far from color blind. Consequently, white humans have rarely received the death penalty for killing humans who happen to be black. At least Catholicism is consistent in its condemnation of abortion and capital punishment. Where is the consistency in our nation's administering the death penalty? The grossly disproportionate race statistics of the victims of capital punishment strongly foretell that this nation can never fairly decide who will live and who will die. The elimination of death by the state offers the only just solution.

The failure of the system to impose death on the takers of black life sends the message that black life is not as valuable as white life. Minimally, the abolishment of the death penalty would produce a peculiar equalizer. There is no precedent for justice and equality in capital punishment, nor can there ever be! Now, I have no doubt.

About the author: Rose Sanders is a civil rights attorney, education activist, songwriter, and playwright living in Selma, Alabama. She is the mother of three children. She is president and co-founder of the 21st Century Leadership project for youth across the South. 21st Century uses the L.A.C.E. (Leadership - Academics - Culture - Economics) philosophy. Rose Sanders was Alabama's first African American woman judge. Rose Sanders has also co-founded CARE (Coalition of Alabamians Reforming Education). In response to CARE's recommendation, Rose Sanders was appointed by the Governor of Alabama to co-chair the state Commission of Standards, Performance and Accountability which is drawing up a blueprint for education reform in Alabama. Rose Sanders co-founded McRae Learning Center where children learn to read at age 3 and 4. Also, she has co-founded the National Summit Against Tracking and the Miseducation of Children which convened at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fall of 1996.

Published in In Motion Magazine - February 28, 1998

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