White Supremacy Legacy Stands Over Justice Matters in Georgia
Racial bias, poverty and mental illness must be addressed in death penalties
In the fall of 1906 Tom Watson, the political firebrand and relentless advocate for poor farmers was immersed in an effort to help elect the Democratic candidate Hoke Smith as the new governor of Georgia. Watson’s fiery brand of white supremacy helped inject a new tone into the campaign and before long both Smith and his opponent were competing to prove who was the bigger opponent of black rights.
The race-baiting ratcheted up tensions as newspapers rushed to publish their ever more provocative statements about which candidate would do more to subjugate blacks in the state until on September 22, 1906 violence erupted. Whites rampaged through downtown Atlanta snatching black people off trolleys, beating them to death and stacking the bodies on street corners. At least 39 blacks were killed and their blood lay at least partially on Watson’s hands.
Today, there is a monument to Tom Watson in front of the Georgia Capitol building. It stands watch over each legislative session, frames the image as tourists snap pictures of the capitol’s famous gold dome, and tonight it witnessed an attempt to prevent the loss of one more black life at the hands of reckless political power in the state of Georgia.
There is everything and nothing left to be said about the case of Troy Davis and the hundreds of people gathered here praying, chanting, singing, shouting and crying their hopes that there would be an outcome other than the death sentence the state plans to impose tonight. The chants and songs are uplifting; the speeches defiant and hopeful but there’s no masking the fact that the Georgia parole board’s decision to deny clemency yesterday is the most disheartening development imaginable for those of us who oppose the death penalty.
In the coming months and years we can and we will confront the question of whether the death penalty has any place in modern society. We will have no choice but to grapple with the issues of racial bias, poverty and mental illness impacting the way the death penalty is administered. But the most despair-inducing part of the Troy Davis case is that it is about a much more fundamental question: How willing are we to risk murdering an innocent man?
The recantation of nearly all the witnesses in the case should give even the most serious supporters of the death penalty reason to pause. Whether Davis is innocent or guilty almost takes a backseat to the question of whether the judicial system operated in a way that gave a jury any hope of possibly answering that question in the first place.
Death penalty critics have often pointed out that seeking the death of an individual, even one guilty of heinous crimes, is not justice, its vengeance. Yet even that answer fails to satisfy the questions surrounding the prosecution and planned execution of Troy Davis. Even the vengeful would be unsettled by the true perpetrator of a crime going free while they vent their wrath on the wrong target.
No, what the Davis case indicates is that the death penalty is not a public policy -- it is a faith, a belief system, a creed holding that fallible humans have been infallible in discerning guilt from innocence. And like most other true-believers, those who practice the faith of capital punishment are immune to all evidence to the contrary.
At its most fundamental, the death penalty both creates and requires false certainty. Two weeks ago at the Republican Party debate Rick Perry asserted that after overseeing hundreds of executions he was untroubled by the worry that Texas might have murdered an innocent person. His fellow worshipers, as you will recall, rewarded Perry with a round of cheers for signing off on more executions than anyone in modern history.
Each generation in this country has confronted a stark moral question in which the opposition was fundamentally immune to reason. If seven of nine witnesses recanting their testimony does not cast doubt on a man’s eligibility for death, then we at least understand the moral question that confronts us as this hour. We have allowed ourselves to live in a nation that launches needless wars and bombs foreign civilians, that demonizes teachers and firefighters and demands that poor people and the elderly sacrifice services while billionaires go untaxed. And we are on the cusp of becoming a place that, like an addle-brained Southern governor, goes untroubled by the thought that we have executed (another) innocent man. If this does not make us afraid it is only because it has already made us numb.
Last night hundreds of protesters made an effort to ensure that no murder would be done in their names. It is a worthy statement. As darkness fell, the crowd melted away on another fall night in Atlanta. And like that night, almost 105 years ago to the day, the spirit of Tom Watson loomed over the Georgia capitol and a black life lay in the balance.
Follow William Jelani Cobb at @jelani9. Cobb will also participate in our Twitter roundtable for Troy Davis featuring dream hampton, Jasiri X, Pastor Troy and Big Boi at 3 p.m. EST.