Bryan Stevenson Puts the Charleston Massacre and the Use of the Death Penalty in Historical Context

In an interview with The Marshall Project, Bryan Stevenson (pictured), director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, discussed the role the history of slavery, lynchings, and racial terrorism in the South played in the racially-motivated killings of nine black people in an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the interview, Stevenson described the historical use of the death penalty as a tool to reinforce a racially discriminatory social order. This, he says, is manifest in race-of-victim disparities in death penalty cases: “In Alabama, 65% of all murder victims are black, but 80% of all death sentences are imposed [when victims] are white. And that’s true throughout this country. We’ve used it particularly aggressively when minority defendants are accused of killing white people.” Occasionally, he says, states will seek the death penalty for a white man accused of a racially-motivated murder, masking the need for an open and honest discussion of this country’s race problems. “You’ll see lots of people talking enthusiastically about imposing the death penalty on this young man in South Carolina. But that’s a distraction from the larger issue, which is that we’ve used the death penalty to sustain racial hierarchy by making it primarily a tool to reinforce the victimization of white people.” Given its historical legacy as tool of racial oppression, Stevenson urges the abolition of the death penalty, saying, “If I were the governor of South Carolina, I’d say: ‘We’re going to abolish the death penalty, because we have a history of lynching and terror that has demonized and burdened people of color in this state since we’ve became a state.’…And I think every southern governor should do the same. That’s when you’d get the different conversations starting in this country. Then you might get some progress.”

(C. Johnson, “Bryan Stevenson on Charleston and Our Real Problem with Race,” The Marshall Project, June 24, 2015.) See Race.