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We, Too, Are Abolitionists: Black History Month, Slavery and the Death Penalty

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When one hears the term "abolitionists" one automatically thinks of the courageous men and women, white and African American, who aided runaway slaves fleeing to freedom in the nation's Northern states and Canada.

A parallel abolitionist movement developed in the U.S. of the late 18th century, continuing into the 19th Century and the present, the movement to abolish the death penalty. Religious groups such as Unitarians and Quakers, who were active in the anti-slavery movement, as well as liberal secularists, were also death penalty abolitionists. Several were influenced by a 1767 essay authored by Cesare Beccaria, "On Crimes and Punishment," which said there is no justification for state sponsored executions. The essay led to the death penalty's abolition in Austria and Tuscany.

Thomas Jefferson, who was moved by the essay, supported legislation in Virginia outlawing the death penalty except in cases of murder and treason. It was defeated by one vote. But such enlightened thinking did not apply to slaves; death by execution was a significant tool in maintaining slavery in the U.S., no less so than in Virginia. As activist and scholar Angela Davis noted, "In Virginia before the end of slavery there was only one crime for which a white person could be executed, but there were 66 crimes for which a slave could be executed. Had it not been for slavery, the death penalty would have likely been abolished in America. Slavery became a haven for the death penalty." African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass pointed out in his autobiography that in some states, slaves could be executed for trying to learn to read.

The late A. Leon Higginbotham, the first African American judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, elaborated on the death penalty double standard in his book, "In the Matter of Color, the Colonial Period." If a slave killed his master or another white person, or raped a white woman, the penalty was automatic death. If a white person killed or raped a slave, the punishment might be imprisonment or a fine. Most crimes by whites against slaves went unpunished. The laws carried the clear, if unstated, message, that some lives are worth more than others. This is still true today, as there are more people of color sentenced to death whose victims were white than the reverse. Higginbotham's book posits the idea that our criminal justice system was less about public safety than it was about reinforcing the social and legal inequality of African Americans and other people of color.

To some degree, anti-slavery abolitionists also lived under the threat of execution, as the Southern states viewed the anti-slavery movement as a threat to their intricately interwoven race, caste, and economic infrastructure. A Georgia newspaper's slogan in the years prior to the Civil War was "The cry of the whole South should be Death, Instant Death, to the Abolitionist, whenever he is caught."

In the 20th Century, death penalty abolition was embraced by major civil rights movement figures. Ebony Magazine quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957 as saying, "I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime -- rape or murder included. God's concern is to improve individuals and bring them to the point of conversion. Even criminology has repudiated the motive of punishment in favor of reformation of the criminal. Shall a good God harbor resentment? Since the purpose of jailing a criminal is that of reformation rather than retribution - improving him rather than paying him back for some crime that he has done -- it is highly inconsistent to take the life of a criminal. How can he improve if his life is taken? Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."

Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, said, "As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder and assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. . . An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by legalized murder."

Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, has said that "The death penalty is a matter of place and race, inequity. . ." and "The state does not have the right to kill, to take a human life; the state does not have the right to enslave. It has the power, but the Bible addresses that. It says 'Not by power, not by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord.' "

Death penalty abolitionists, like their anti-slavery predecessors, have fought to end that which enslaves our humanity. We Americans should honor abolitionists of the past and present not only by remembering them during Black History Month, but by working to repeal capital punishment in all death penalty states. In their memory, we must forever renounce and reject this outdated legacy of slavery.

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