08/12/2014 11:03 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

A Look Back


As August dawns it comes to me that the years are racing by at a bewildering pace. I, who still think of myself as a naïve kid in many ways, am a grandfather. Taking in the beauty and innocence of my grandchildren brings with it a sweet sadness. I'm painfully aware of their fragility, the incredible delicacy in their every movement, the magnitude of every discovery, the possibility in their every living breath. You see, looking at the world these kids will inherit, I wonder how they'll cope with what we leave in our often mindless wake. Thinking of the challenges we've faced, how far we've come and how many times we've missed the mark, I'm worried about what it will be like for these beautiful children half a century from now.

One half-century ago, after a hard-fought, bloody battle for rights long denied many Americans, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing widely practiced discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Because the passage of the Act did not magically cure the fear, hardened hearts and need for the reassurance of privileged status that fueled racial hatred in America, change came grudgingly if at all. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), while fighting for civil rights and against persistent segregation, began to look to the way the criminal justice system, and in particular the death penalty, were wielded disproportionately against people of color. After three hard years, on August 16, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the 11th annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. In a speech entitled "Where Do We Go From Here?" Dr. King urged those in attendance to "go out with a divine dissatisfaction" and help build an America where everyone could enjoy "an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity," where men and women would "be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin." He urged them to be dissatisfied "until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." He warned that "the road ahead will not always be smooth... that there will be moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair," yet he urged on them the belief that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Less than a year later he was dead, felled by an assassin's bullet.

Little known and virtually unremarked in the United States, one month after the passage of our Civil Rights Act, on August 13, 1964, an execution took place in England. It was the last one. No man or woman, no matter how serious the crime, has been executed in Great Britain in the 50 years since that day. None. Yet in that same period here in the land of the brave, 1,399 captive, helpless men and women have been hanged, electrocuted, gassed, shot by firing squad or injected with lethal doses of chemicals: killed by their government here in the country for which Dr. King had such hopes.

Has America's moral arc bent toward justice over the last half century? By some measures, it appears not.

And to what end? Have we profited somehow by this death-dealing? Are we safer because of it than our counterparts in England? Are we wealthier, more moral? Are our children and grandchildren better protected? Again, it appears not.

Why then have we clung to this atavism? How do we claim to be the world's leader in the propagation of human rights when we remain the only developed Western nation that continues to use capital punishment? What explains our willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as the word's leading killers of their own citizens?

In the 1950s and 60s, most Americans opposed the death penalty and it was rarely used. But Richard Nixon and his acolyte, the corrupt authoritarian Spiro Agnew, were elected in 1968 after attacking "permissiveness," and ridiculing "the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history." Crying that "the era of appeasement must come to an end," they argued that we must be 'tough on crime' because "there are people in our society who should be separated and discarded." Discarded. How better to demonstrate how tough you are on crime than to kill?

Despite the Nixon/Agnew demagoguery, in 1972 the LDF prevailed and the U.S. Supreme Court's Furman decision stopped state killing, finding its application inappropriately "wanton" and "freakish" and expressing concern about possible racial bias. But in 1976 Texas and Georgia led the killing states to mollify the Court's concerns, resulting in the reinstatement of capital punishment for the "worst of the worst" and beginning the "modern era" of state killing in the U.S.

Since that day we have put to death human beings who were disproportionately people of color, a fact that unmasks the institutionalization of the chronic racism that caused Dr. King to be reviled, spied upon by our government and ultimately murdered. We have killed children, the mentally damaged and people who were completely innocent of the crime for which they suffered and died. Virtually all of those we've killed were poor and could not afford an effective defense, so rather than the "worst of the worst" we've been killing those with the worst lawyers. We have wasted billions of dollars and hundreds of lives in the insane pursuit of a humane way to commit an inhumane act. And at the same time we have built a jail/prison complex that is unspeakably brutal to house more human beings than any other prison system anywhere in the world.

We've accomplished all of this in the span of years since Great Britain - now joined by most of the rest of the world - grasped the virtue in ending the taking of life by the state. I can only pray, for the sake of my grandchildren, yours, and future generations, that "from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream," that Dr. King's arc of the moral universe will soon bend our way.