The instinct for retribution is part of the nature of man, and channeling that instinct in the administration of criminal justice serves an important purpose in promoting the stability of a society governed by law. When people begin to believe that organized society is unwilling or unable to impose upon criminal offenders the punishment they "deserve," then there are sown the seeds of anarchy–of self help, vigilante justice, and lynch law.
–from Justice Potter Stewart's justification of capital punishment in his 1976 opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, which restored the death penalty
Capital punishment, a direct descendent of lynching and other forms of racial violence, remains one of America's most prominent vestiges of slavery and racial oppression.
–Stephen Bright, "Challenging Racial Discrimination in Capital Cases," The Champion, January/February 1997
Sometimes a single story can tell us more about our history than volumes of statistics. How slavery gave birth to lynching and lynching to America's embrace of the death penalty is revealed in its starkest clarity in Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips Jr.'s invaluable book, Contempt of Court. Subtitled The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism, it is the story of one innocent black man, Ed Johnson, convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman in the St. Elmo section of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1906. When Johnson's attorneys had the temerity to appeal his conviction to the US Supreme Court, which stayed Johnson's execution, he was lynched with the cooperation of Chattanooga's criminal justice establishment. In part because the lynching led to an unprecedented trial for contempt of the Supreme Court, there exists an unusually complete historical record of the events leading up to the lynching. One of the most forceful aspects of the book is how the participants, in their own candid words, explained their actions.
The authors set the scene well. Forty years earlier the South had lost the Civil War militarily but not politically. The economic and political powers of the North had long since made their peace with their white brethren who led the Confederacy. Slavery was illegal but new laws, customs, economic relationships and institutions had been created to keep blacks in their place. Contempt of Court quotes one Tennessee newspaper columnist as explaining that "black people may no longer be slaves, but whites must find means to retain control over the coloreds." One of those "means" was the law. Tennessee enacted statutes that created separate crimes and punishments only for black people. "Any black person found guilty of assault upon a white woman, impersonating a white man for carnal purposes, or stealing a horse, a mule or baled cotton would automatically be punished by death. There was no similar law for white people."