Historically the Death Penalty has been used as a tool of racial and political repression. It is the ultimate form of not only dehumanization, but also political control over a populace . It has been employed to discourage uprisings against colonization, and protect white supremacy and upper class interests since the conception of our nation. Here are a few examples(we hope to give a more exhaustive view of this history at a later time) of the political history of the Death Penalty in the U.S.
Death Penalty in response to the indigenous resistance, abolitionist uprisings, and civil rights conflicts:
The Dakota 38
The largest mass execution in US history took place during the genocide of indigenous/ first nations people.
“December 26, 1862: thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in US history–on orders of President Abraham Lincoln. Their crime: killing 490 white settlers, including women and children, in the Santee Sioux uprising the previous August…
Lincoln’s treatment of defeated Indian rebels against the United States stood in sharp contrast to his treatment of Confederate rebels. He never ordered the executions of any Confederate officials or generals after the Civil War, even though they killed more than 400,000 Union soldiers. ”
Houston Riot of 1917: Following a race riot at Camp Logan(Houston, TX) in 1917, 19 out of 156 black soldiers involved were executed.
“Newspapers at the time reported that the soldiers had mutinied and attacked innocent white civilians. But an NAACP investigation concluded that the soldiers acted in response to ongoing police brutality. The soldiers initially intended to stage a peaceful march to the police station, but violence broke out when they were confronted by the mob of white citizens on their way to Houston.28
No white civilian was ever brought to trial for involvement in the violence.”
Port Chicago “Mutiny”:
Although prosecutors did not succeed in securing death sentences for the men involved, Navy officials threatened to execute 50 black seamen who disobeyed orders to return to loading ammunition after they survived the Port Chicago disaster in 1944. The men were convicted of mutiny but were later released due mostly to the work of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. An excellent history of this event and the racism against black servicemen at the time is available from: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin
Public executions (and later lynchings) were also an important part of maintaining white supremacy through fear. The executions of those involved in the Harper’s Ferry Rebellion and Nat Turner’s Rebellion are two of the best known historical examples.
Red Scare Executions of immigrants, labor organizers, and leftists
Sacco and Vanzetti
Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in 1920 for an alleged double murder and robbery. Their guilt was and continues to be debated, but the fact that their trial and sentencing was steeped in xenophobia and political desire to execute the two radicals was abundantly clear.
About the case:
Prominent Swedish-American labor organizer and musician Joe Hill was executed in 1915 for a murder he insisted he did not commit. His innocence is still debated, and a recent discovery of a letter supporting an alibi suggests he was framed.
“Thanks in large part to his songs and to his stirring, well-publicized call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution—“Don’t waste time mourning, organize!”—Hill became, and he has remained, the best-known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.”
Black Power Movement and Police Killings
The modern Death Penalty era resumed in 1976, just in time for many militant social activists to be prosecuted for shoot outs with police and other incidents of self defense. We now know that COINTELPRO helped to sabotage social movements and kill or frame large numbers of activists. Prosecutors’ obsession with death penalty cases involving “cop killers” seems to stem from this era. While many Black Power activists ended up serving Life or Life without Parole(“slow death”), some were sentenced to death as well. Mumia Abu-Jamal became possibly the most famous Death Row inmate in the country for continuing his work as a reporter after being sentenced to death for a murder he has always denied. He has since had his sentence commuted to Life and continues to challenge his conviction.
Regardless of the era, or even the country, executions remain a major tool for social control and political repression. This is an often overlooked aspect of the Death Penalty system that must be discussed more in depth, especially in the context of our current political climate nationally and globally.