The Death Penalty: What Would Dr. King Do?

martin luther king death penalty quoteDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be eighty-two years old this year had he not been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in the middle of a campaign for the human rights of sanitation workers.

Volumes have been written about his powerful life and legacy.  Innumerable awards and tributes have been paid to this giant for justice.  Many often imagine how much more he would have accomplished had he not been killed at such a young age.

I have no doubt that Dr. King, if he were alive today, would be an outspoken critic of the U.S. criminal justice system and a bold and authoritative voice for an end to the death penalty (below are ways you can act to end the death penalty too).

When Dr. King was alive, he addressed the issue directly:

I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime – rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.

Just a few years after King’s death, in the 1970s, lawmakers started to reorient the U.S. criminal justice system.  Harsher punishments were introduced, not because crime was becoming an uncontrollable crisis, but because politicians found that fear of crime could be exploited for political gain.  Investments in rehabilitation and prevention were eroded by a cynical “tough on crime” approach that made monsters out of “criminals,” but did not actually result in greater public safety.

The result today is a system of human warehousing at a scale never before seen.  With over 2 million people locked up in its prisons and jails, the U.S. has established itself as the greatest incarcerator in the world. And those leaving prisons after serving their sentences face social and economic barriers that trap them in a permanent cycle of marginalization.

Dr. King would likely call our society out for allowing this silent human rights crisis to continue.  The lives of millions of people of color and the poor are being destroyed figuratively and literally with no practical or moral gain.  The death penalty, both in the U.S. and around the world, is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities.

The death penalty is one of the worst symptoms of this terrible system that also puts the U.S. in a shameful light.  Country after country started abandoning capital punishment in the decades following King’s death.  Only a small handful were abolitionist in King’s day, but now 139 countries have stopped using capital punishment.  In the U.S., death sentences and executions at first continued to grow in number, peaking in the 1990s.  Fortunately this trend has now reversed, giving us hope that we will see an end to this outmoded and inhuman practice.

Dr. King applied the ethic of non-violence to social change.  At its essence was a deep respect for the human dignity in all people, including the oppressor and the perpetrator of violence.  This is not to excuse those who commit crimes or to ignore the need for accountability and justice.  What is important is how we, as a society, go about meeting the needs of victims so that we raise up rather than damage our values.

King understood that “violence is … a descending spiral,” and that “returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”  A system that asks public servants who work in prisons to actively carry out homicides on behalf of the people is fundamentally violent.  The use of the law, precise protocols, medical equipment and polite behavior may create an appearance of legitimacy, but those who carry out the act of killing a human being are damaged by this inhuman act and we are all damaged because it is done in our name.

In the wake of the outrageous execution of Troy Davis, African American human rights leaders have found new passion to define the death penalty as a major justice issue for our day.  We are proud to stand with the NAACP and other civil rights leaders to bring this issue to the American public with more vigor in 2012.  Lawmakers in Maryland and Connecticut have the votes to end their death penalties this year if we can mobilize the needed pressure from their constituents.

Join us, as Dr. King would have, by taking action and spreading the word:

  • Sign up for the Death Penalty Action Weeks (Feb. 27-Mar. 11).
  • Take action for for Reggie Clemons, whose case has so many similarities to Troy’s and who is at risk of execution this year.
  • On King Day (Monday, January 16), take Dr. King’s message to Facebook and Twitter by sharing the photo above on your Facebook wall and tweeting Dr. King’s quotes below.

We know that Dr. King would be front and center in this cause if he were with us today.  Help us build on the human rights legacy that he helped create by taking action to end the death penalty!

Tweets you can use on January 16 (King Day):

#MLK: “I do not think God approves the #DeathPenalty for any crime – rape and murder included.” http://bit.ly/Aiwzo7 via @amnesty [CLICK HERE TO TWEET]

#MLK: The #deathpenalty is against “modern criminology and…the highest expression of love in the nature of God.” http://bit.ly/Aiwzo7 [CLICK HERE TO TWEET]

#MLK: “Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.” http://bit.ly/Aiwzo7 via @amnesty [CLICK HERE TO TWEET]

#MLK: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” End the #deathpenalty! http://bit.ly/Aiwzo7 [CLICK HERE TO TWEET]

#MLK: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence.” http://bit.ly/Aiwzo7 [CLICK HERE TO TWEET]

#MLK: “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.” http://bit.ly/Aiwzo7 [CLICK HERE TO TWEET]

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