Troy Davis, Duane Buck: What would Martin Luther King have said?

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"I have a dream." (Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute)

On Friday, 300 protest rallies around the world were held over the planned execution of Troy Davis. The petition delivered to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles had 638,000 signatures and it’s growing.

The execution is planned for September 21.

Meanwhile, in Texas,  the Duane Buck was given a stay of execution last week. Texas held off until the last appeals had been decided.  According to the Guardian:

At Buck’s sentencing hearing, the jury that set his punishment was informed by a psychologist that black people had a higher rate of violent behaviour, a statement used by the prosecution as its key argument against giving him an alternative penalty of life imprisonment.

So what would Martin Luther King, Jr., have said?  Tenisha Armstrong of Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, home of the King Papers Project, forwarded me King’s message of April 6, 1958, in Montgomery, Ala.

It was Easter Sunday, King delivered a statement at the “Prayer Pilgrimage” protesting the electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves.  King led 15 black ministers on a one-block procession from Dexter Church to the state capitol, where he addressed a crowd of 2,000.  Some of his words on that occasion:

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves.

Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rarely ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.  …

It is regrettable but true that in almost any session of our city, county and state courts one can see all of the injustices which the prophet Amos so bitterly decried and which he predicted would mean the ruin of their once glorious civilization.

Here Negroes are robbed openly with little hope of redress. We are fined and jailed often in defiance of law. Right or wrong, a Negro’s word has little weight against a white opponent’s. And if the Negro insists on the right of his cause, as opposed to a white man’s he is often violently treated.
There is another injustice in the courts which is equally as bad. Cases in which only Negroes are involved are handled frivolously, without regard to justice or proper correction. We deplore this type of injustice as much as we do the injustice whcih the Negro confronts in his court relations with whites.

We appeal this afternoon to our white brothers, whether they are private citizens or public officials, to courageously meet this problem. This is not a political issue: it is ultimately a moral issue. It is a question of the dignity of man.

We would not close without asking God’s forgiveness for those who unjustly treat us. We are still inflicted with economic injustice – Father forgive them. Simply because we want to be free there are those who will threaten our lives, cripple us with economic reprisals, and bomb our homes and churches – but Father forgive them. … Let us go away devoid of bitterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. It hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue.

If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society. If some of us must go to jail for the cause of freedom, let us enter it as Gandhi urged his countrymen, “As the bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber,” that is with some trepidation but with great expectation
Is is significant that we assemble here on Easter Day. Easter reminds us of two things. On the one hand, it reminds us that there is something wrong with human nature and human history. It reminds us that man is separated from God and separated from his brother, which leads to the tradegy of Good Friday. On the other hand it reminds us that God is in Christ seeking to reconcile the world unto himself. It reminds us that God ultimately rules history. So Easter is a day of hope. It is a day that says to us that the forces of evil and injustice cannot survive.

Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

 

 

 


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