The Death Penalty, Racism and the American Practice of Lynching

“A man was lynched yesterday” read the banner that flew outside the NAACP headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue in 1938. Some 73 years later, such a banner is still relevant as the American practice of lynching continues in ways new and old in the 21st century.

(Image source: Library of Congress, NAACP)

On Wednesday, in what the typically reserved New York Times called “a grievous wrong,” the State of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis at 11:08 pmAlbert Camus observed that “capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders,” and that was never more true than this week when Georgia proceeded with the killing of Mr. Davis in spite of serious doubts about his guilt and in spite of national and international media attention about the case, and an outcry from various celebrities and luminaries including President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI. Much of the outrage is that there was simply too much doubt (as the Twitter hashtag #toomuchdoubt suggested) about Davis’ guilt. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime for which he was convicted, and 7 of the 9 witnesses recanted their testimony. If Georgia ends up exonerating Davis, it wouldn’t be the first time that state later recanted it’s prosecution of an African American accused of killing a white person, but it may take awhile.  Sixty years after Lena Baker, an African American woman, was convicted – and executed – for killing a white man, the State of Georgia exonerated her.

The other part of the outrage about this case has to do with the systemic racism of the death penalty: Davis was African American and the victim in this case, Mark MacPhail, was white (and an off-duty cop).  Some have even referred to the execution of Davis as a “legal lynching,” an especially ironic phrase given that the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which refused to stay the execution with no dissents from the bench, not even from Justice Thomas, who once claimed to be a victim of “high-tech lynching” because of Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment.  But, perhaps this is just hyperbole. What is lynching?  Is there any evidence that links the American practice of lynching to the death penalty?

Continue reading…