The same brand of Southern pride that inspired lynchings after the U.S. Civil War fuels support for the death penalty today, writes legal analyst Joia Erin Thornton (pictured) in a commentary on the web publication, Blavity. In The Dark Southern Pride Upholding The Barbaric Death Penalty, published December 23, 2021, Thornton argues that, just as Southern states in Reconstruction turned to extreme carceral punishments to reimpose violent control over Black Americans after the abolition of slavery, Southern states today lead the way in executions.

Thornton, the National Policy Strategist at the Southern Center for Human Rights, traces the South’s heavy use of the death penalty back to the region’s history of Jim Crow and lynchings. She links current political attitudes of white southerners to the glorification of the Confederacy, writing, “Many white Southerners began this ‘lost cause’ rhetoric as a way to rationalize how they were unjustly treated by the rest of the country and projected that one day ‘the South will rise again.’”

“There’s a lot of pride in the southern region, but it’s also part of the South’s plan to reclaim its old values, even if it means punishing the rest of the country for daring to socially evolve,” Thornton writes. “The South really wants to win, and it is, at sustaining the inherently inadequate and inhumane system of capital punishment.”

Thornton also finds similarities to lynchings in the way capital punishment is enforced today. White male mobs lynched Black people “for the simplest of actions, like failing to cross the street if a white male or female was on the same side,” she writes. Today, death sentences are disproportionately sought against Black people by district attorneys, 80% of whom are white.

Thornton also casts doubt on a common reason for supporting the death penalty—the idea that the punishment deters murder and other serious crimes. She notes that the five states with the highest homicide rates in 2021, according to the World Population Review, are southern death-penalty states: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

“Southern states are not deterring violent crime with capital punishment sentences,” Thornton writes. “The public is not safer nor are offenders less likely to offend because of capital sentences. The South is winning in one of the country’s most morally shameful races ever: the death race. The death penalty is an old guard in the South well past its dishonorable discharge.”

Citing DPIC’s Enduring Injustice report, Thornton discusses the historic role the death penalty has played as an instrument of social control in the U.S. During slavery, capital punishment was a tool for controlling Black populations and curbing rebellions. After the Civil War, public officials promised legal executions as a means to discourage lynchings. As lynchings decreased in the early 20th century, executions began to take their place in circumstances that earlier would have drawn a lynch mob. Across the South, African-American men were condemned and executed for the alleged rape or attempted rape of white women or girls. No white man was ever executed for raping a Black woman or girl.


Joia Erin, The Dark Southern Pride Upholding The Barbaric Death Penalty, Blavity, December 232021.