On the occasion of Martin Luther King Junior’s 87th birthday, we must examine our national progress on a project that Dr. King framed so beautifully throughout his life’s work. Dr. King’s activism helped bring about two landmark pieces of civil rights legislation, reforms that lifted millions out of poverty, and an end to the war in Vietnam. His achievements, and his words, have had an awe-inspiring positive impact on our nation. We must remember his achievements today, but it is also critical to acknowledge that these are pieces of an ambitious cross-regional, interracial, intergenerational, and unfinished struggle: the struggle to integrate the values of equality and compassion into every segment of American society. We live in a nation today that falls short of Dr. King’s dream. The death penalty, which Dr. King himself opposed, is neither compassionate nor egalitarian.
The death penalty, as an idea, is incompatible with an authentically compassionate society. It is premised on a lack of compassion. By executing convicts, our justice system eliminates the capacity of our imprisoned to reform or to be forgiven. It demonstrates a disregard for human life within a system in which we have entrusted great moral authority. In the words of Dr. King, capital punishment “is against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”
In application, it is cruel and unusual. In the last year, states that were unable to acquire the conventional drugs required for lethal injection made convicts the victims of their experimental injections. One of these drug cocktails used in Oklahoma caused Clayton Lockett to undergo an agonizing 45 minute long botched execution that eventually resulted in his death. The most brutal punitive instrument in our prisons is being used on the mentally ill. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that the execution of the mentally ill was unconstitutional in 1986, Mental Health America estimates that 5-10% of death row inmates are mentally ill.
Activists across the country have called for people and institutions to recognize that black lives matter; since 1976 the death penalty has ended 493 of them. Black people are executed disproportionately, relative to the general population. They make up almost half of all death row inmates, but are only 15% of the general population. Studies consistently show that the race of the victim plays a large role in death sentencing. 50% of murder victims are white, but 75% of executions occurred in a case with a white victim. In the case of the death penalty, justice is not blind- it is racist. The death penalty directly contradicts Dr. King’s efforts to promote racial equality as an American value.
The legacy of Martin Luther King Junior is not only the charting of a course towards compassion and equality for our nation, but demonstrating the ability of every person to affect this course. Dr. King was not able to complete his mission in his lifetime, but he did leave us with the blueprint and the inspiration to continue his work. During the civil rights movement, he showed the capacity of millions of dedicated, inspired, everyday people to act as the conscience of the nation and bring about a moral reckoning. Today, 90 million people want to bring greater equality and compassion to our justice system by abolishing the death penalty. This is our moment to restore the conscience of the nation on this issue. Contact policy makers, attend rallies, sign the pledge. The power to advance Dr. King’s dream is in your hands.