MLK Day 2017: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Death Penalty

On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on capital punishment. In a November 1957 article in Ebony, Dr. King was asked "Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?" He responded, "I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."  Several months later, Alabama executed Jeremiah Reeves, a young black man who was 16 years old when he was charged with raping a white woman. Tried before an all-white jury, Reeves was convicted and sentenced to death. In April 1958, Dr. King stood on the state capitol steps during a prayer pilgrimage protesting what he called "a tragic and unsavory injustice." Dr. King said: "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 rare 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." Later, in his sermon "Loving Your Enemies," Dr. King preached a philosophy that had no room for capital retribution: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

("Advice for Living," Ebony, November 1957; M.L. King, Jr., “Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves.”  April  6, 1958, Montgomery, Alabama; M.L. King, Jr., "Loving Your Enemies" in Strength to Love, 1963.) See Religion and Race.