This column by Arnie Alpert ran in the Concord Monitor on January 19, 2014. 

Martin Luther King’s first fight was against the death penalty

By Arnie Alpert

Bus segregation was not the first issue that grabbed the attention of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when the young pastor moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. His first campaign in his new home focused on a sentence of death for Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old black boy convicted of raping a white woman. Reeves had confessed under duress, but later recanted, a claim widely believed in the black community.  Dr.  King joined the NAACP’s efforts to save Reeves’ life. 

 “In the years that [Reeves] sat in jail,” Dr. King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, his book about the Montgomery movement, “several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls.  They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the Grand Jury; none was ever brought to trial.” [1]

Reeves was found guilty by an all-white jury and put to death on March 28, 1958.

Such gerrymandered justice e was a well established fact of life in the South, going back to the days of slavery when blacks were commonly executed or lynched for crimes that drew less harsh punishment -- or none -- when committed by whites.  This discriminatory pattern continued after emancipation, as Stuart Banner documents in his book, The Death Penalty: An American History.

 “In the first half of the [twentieth] century,” he writes, “the southern states punished many crimes by death only if they were committed by blacks, in the second half of the century they accomplished the same result by delegating to all-white juries the discretion to choose capital or noncapital punishment.”

Sadly, the role played by race in decisions about the death penalty persists.  According to the DC-based Death Penalty Information Center, recent studies “add to an overwhelming body of evidence that race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. Racial effects have been shown not just in isolated instances, but in virtually every state for which disparities have been estimated and over an extensive period of time.”

New Hampshire is a case in point.

Michael Addison was charged with capital murder for killing Michael Briggs, a police officer, in 2006. 

John Brooks was charged with capital murder for hiring three men to assist him in killing Jack Reid, a handyman, in 2005. 

The trials took place in adjacent counties in 2008.

Addison, a poor black man with a prior criminal record, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Brooks, a white millionaire businessman, was found guilty but spared the death penalty.

Monica Foster, Brooks’ attorney, said of her client after the sentence was announced, “He's not the kind of people juries routinely kill."

Racial disparities in the use of the death penalty have been a focus of scholarly research for decades.  According to the authors of a 2013 study, “The most consistent and robust finding in this literature is that even after controlling for dozens and sometimes hundreds of case-related variables, Americans who murder whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who murder blacks.” 

In a study of 445 jury-eligible people across six states which most actively impose the death penalty, these researchers found jurors associate white lives with “worth” or “value” and black lives with “worthless” or “expendable.” That ought to be a wake-up call for anyone interested in the fairness of our judicial system. 

As for Dr. King, it is worth noting that his comments on Jeremiah Reeves did not directly reject capital punishment, just “the unequal justice of Southern courts.”  As King matured into the leader we honor today, his critique of injustice deepened and blended with a prescription for change.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” he famously said. 

Dr. King told the world on the day he received the Nobel Peace Prize, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.”

The realization of King’s vision is far off.  Abolition of the death penalty would be an excellent step in the right direction.

To join efforts for New Hampshire death penalty repeal, join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom