Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty marked the grim occasion with a rally and march in Atlanta against the death penalty, according to an article by Atlanta Progressive News.
It's encouraging to see a movement to abolish the death penalty rising up in the South, the region where I was born and raised and where the super-majority of American executions happen. Of all the executions in 2009, 16 have occurred in Texas, five in Alabama, two in Georgia, two in South Carolina, one in Tennessee, one in Virginia, and one in Florida, plus three in Oklahoma, three in Ohio, and one in Missouri. Is it just coincidence that 80% of American executions so far this year have happened in the former Confederate States? (For whatever it's worth, Missouri was a slave state, though it didn't secede.) In fact, the Old Confederacy accounts for roughly 80% of all executions this decade. I believe this is an underlooked aspect of the death penalty debate.
It's hard not to see the death penalty as a barbaric institution of backwards cultures. The United States stands alone among modern Western nations in continuing to execute its citizens. The USA annually ranks near the top of the charts for most executions, behind appalling regimes like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and ahead of appalling regimes like Syria, Somalia, and Sierra Leone. And we rank among such bad company mostly because of our states where lynching was most common and racism ran the deepest in our not-too-distant past.
It's also hard not to see the connection between partisan politics and the death penalty in America. Is it a coincidence that just as New Mexico became a reliably "blue" state (Obama won it by 15 points and both senators and the governor are Democrats), it abolished the state's death penalty? Virginia, another recently blue state, finally got a governor who opposes the death penalty. Of the 15 states that have abolished the death penalty, only two of them (Alaska and West Virginia) voted for John McCain in 2008 (and most of them have homicide rates below the national average).
But how much longer will Democratic politicians have to tip-toe around the issue? In New Mexico, Governor Richardson says he personally supports the death penalty but thinks it should be abolished in his state. In Virginia, Governor Kaine says he personally opposes the death penalty but will respect Virginia's death penalty laws. Some of the waffling can be tied back to Michael Dukakis' famously and embrrassingly lame answer to a death penalty question in the 1988 presidential debate, which many later pointed to as the beginning of the end of his campaign. More generally, Democratic cautiousness on the issue has to do with wanting to avoid the "soft on crime" attacks that "law and order" Republicans have been using since the late 1960s. Back then, those phrases were code words skillfully used to stoke working-class White fear of urban Blacks, as part of the Nixonian "Southern Strategy" that propelled Republican candidates for a generation. So it's not a surprise that pro-death penalty arguments still have the most sway in the Old Confederacy, where Republican politicians and executions are still plentiful.
But the Southern Strategy is dying, and the law-and-order arguments are dying with it. It won't be long before we see prominent national Democrats unashamedly opposing the death penalty. And it won't be long after that before the United States joins the rest of the civilized world in abolishing the barbaric institution of state-sponsored revenge killings.