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MLK's legacy lives on 50 years later

Posted at 11:18 AM, Apr 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-02 11:18:33-04

(RNN) – The country is reflecting on the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches.

Of the many issues the civil rights leader confronted, one ever-relevant topic he addressed was the morality of capital punishment.

King often preached the virtue of nonviolence, and in 1957 he made plain his stance against the death penalty:

I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime – rape and murder included. God’s concern is to improve individuals and bring them to the point of conversion. Even criminology has repudiated the motive of punishment in favor of the reformation of the criminal. Shall a good God harbor resentment? Since the purpose of jailing a criminal is that of reformation rather than retribution – improving him rather than paying him back for some crime that he has done – it is highly inconsistent to take the life of a criminal. How can he improve if his life is taken? Capital punishment is against the best judgement of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.

King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, also decried the death penalty: “Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”

James Earl Ray pleaded guilty in 1969 to killing King. In doing so, he avoided the electric chair and spent the rest of his life in prison.

These days, we can look to the latest statistics on executions to get an idea of how the U.S. is living up to the Kings' standards on capital punishment.

In 2018, 31 states allow the death penalty and 19 don't.

The number of executions has decreased since 1999. There were 98 executions that year, compared to the 23 executions in 2017.

Here are the 2017 executions broken down by state:

  • Texas: 7
  • Arkansas: 4
  • Alabama: 3
  • Florida: 3
  • Virginia: 2
  • Ohio: 2
  • Georgia: 1
  • Missouri: 1

It’s worth noting that many of the executions were in the South, where King lived and often campaigned for social justice.

The number of death sentences handed down also have dropped significantly in recent decades, from 295 in 1998 to 39 in 2017.

Of course, nobody knows how many executions will be carried out this year. Seven inmates have been put to death in the last 3 months.

There have been, however, more death row exonerations in recent years. There was an average of 3 exonerations per year between 1973 and 1999. There was an average of 5 exonerations per year from 2000 to 2011.

When it comes to how race has factored into capital punishment since 1976, the numbers break down this way for executed inmates:

  • Black: 505 (34.5 percent)
  • Latino: 123 (8.3 percent)
  • White: 820 (55.6 percent)
  • Other (as listed by the Death Penalty Information Center): 24, or 1.6 percent

Here are executions since 1976 by race of victims:

  • Black: 330 (15.3 percent)
  • Latino: 151 (6.9 percent)
  • White: 1,634 (75.6 percent)
  • Other: 45 (2.1 percent)

One set of numbers shows a striking disparity.

Of the people executed for interracial murders in the U.S. since 1976, 20 white inmates were executed for the murder of a black victim, and 289 black inmates were executed for the murder of a white victim.

In this time of reflection on King’s legacy, this might give pause to some because of how the statistic relates to King’s concerns about not just executions but of broader racial inequality in the justice system.

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