The 2016 documentary “13th” explored the true meaning of the our 13th amendment with the purpose of showing that slavery did not end in the U.S., but rather it evolved into a prison system where being convicted of a crime essentially reverts your status from citizen to slave of the state. The documentary shows evidence that it is not by accident that the same labor done by slaves is still done, for pennies a day, in a prison system where black and indigenous people are highly over-represented.
Similarly, questions can be made about whether lynchings disappeared, or merely evolved into state sponsored executions. While prisons began growing as soon as chattel slavery ended, the Post-Reconstruction period was an era of high racist mob violence which slowly waned as the “justice system” took tighter control over local affairs. Lynchings spiked in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but as early civil rights organizers pushed for the federal government to intervene, there was a change in the workings of ‘justice’. Local authorities began ‘protecting’ black men from lynch mobs, but the end results of their trials were hardly different, beyond adding a few layers of bureaucracy and moving the executions behind prison walls. We can see the evidence of decades of unfair trials tainted by racism, and a conveyor belt that led, and still leads, straight to the execution chamber.
While not all death sentences, just like not all prison sentences, are race related, there is significant evidence that the lynching mentality prevails in sentencing and contributes to the failures of our justice system. This is well represented by the fact that 41.38 percent of death row inmates nationally are black, and 84 out of 164 death row exonerees are black, but black people make up only 15 percent of our national population, and black men are a significantly smaller percentage. Furthermore, The Equal Justice Initiative points out that “More than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, and more than eight in ten of the more than 1400 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South.”
Here are a few examples of the modern presence of the lynching mentality:
After a robbery-murder in 2009, jurors visited the “hanging tree”, which is more properly called a lynching tree, in downtown Houston during George Curry’s trial. He was sentenced to death. The judge was recently removed from his appeal due to his comments about black men and the black lives matter movement.
In the case of Shelton Jones, who was convicted for shooting a police officer near University of Houston, an editorial was written, in 1991, suggesting he “be hung from a “tall tree” with a “short rope,”. The courtroom was also packed by uniformed police, who clearly intended to influence the jury with their presence.
In the case of the Central Park 5 in 1989, Donald Trump suggested the 5 black and hispanic boys should be executed for the rape of a white woman. They were later proven innocent through DNA testing, yet Trump has continued to maintain their guilt.
In the case of Walter McMillian, despite being a respected businessman with no motive for robbery and a solid alibi (he was seen working on his truck at home by numerous black church folk during the murder), hearsay testimony was enough for the almost-all- white jury to convict him. He was convicted based on easily disproven lies told by two men with their own self interest in mind, and the prosecutor even went so far as to bring up at trial that McMillian was sleeping with a white woman. He was later exonerated.
Anthony Ray Hinton, Alabama Death Row exoneree, talks plainly about how his arresting officers told him it did not matter whether he was innocent or not because he was black and everyone involved in the trial and conviction would be white. This was not a pre-civil rights scenario, but 1986. There are hundreds of others on death row from the 80s and 90s, when racism was still an unquestionable factor in policing and sentencing.
“It was a legal lynching.”: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/27/anthony-ray-hinton-death-row-a-legal-lynching-alabama-crime
Have things changed? The Marshall Project points out that although death sentences have drastically declined, they are still primarily imposed on people of color. For example, “In 2018, all seven of the men sentenced to death in Texas are people of color.”
“Lynching Stopped But the Mindset Didn’t”: https://www.democracynow.org/2014/11/20/part_2_bryan_stevenson_on_executions
Race to Execution: https://eji.org/videos/race-to-execution
The Stepchild of Lynching: https://theintercept.com/2018/06/17/lynching-museum-alabama-death-penalty/