Georgia’s King Tribute Rings Hollow

Georgia’s King Tribute Rings Hollow

Abolishing the death penalty was one of Coretta Scott King’s signature issues. The irony is that Georgia remains one of the leading practitioners of the death penalty.


With flags flying at half-staff across Georgia, thousands of mourners streamed into the Capitol Rotunda in Atlanta Saturday to pay their respects to Coretta Scott King. Public officials offered statements of praise and admiration, and Governor Sonny Perdue, who opened the Capitol for the viewing, hailed the late civil rights and human rights hero as a national icon. Through its display of reverence, the state drew a sharp contrast between 2006 and 1968, when Governor Lester Maddox, an avid segregationist, refused to close the state government for the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. But with regard to one of Coretta’s signature issues–capital punishment–the Georgia of today looks all too similar to the Georgia of decades past.

In a speech to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in 1981, Coretta delivered one of the world’s most famous statements against capital punishment. “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder and assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses,” she said. “An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”

Despite having spent the past week memorializing this death penalty abolitionist, Georgia remains one of the nation’s leaders in executions, ranking fourth all-time among US states and seventh since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976. Moreover, four decades after the height of the civil rights movement, racial discrimination–one of the principal factors in the rise of the death penalty in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s–continues to plague Georgia’s capital punishment process.

In fact, the day Coretta Scott King died, the American Bar Association released a Death Penalty Assessment Report for Georgia, which notes that the state is not in compliance with ABA recommendations in a majority of categories concerning the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities. Specifically, the report suggests that Georgia continues to ignore patterns of racial discrimination and has failed to adopt legislation explicitly stating that no person should be put to death in accordance with a sentence sought or imposed as a result of the race of the defendant or victim. Though the ABA’s conclusions are hardly the first of their kind, Atlanta’s political heavyweights have consistently dismissed calls for a moratorium on executions and ignored the prospect of abolition.

As for the past, Georgia is in large part responsible for the modern death penalty–not just within its own borders but throughout the entire United States. In 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, capital punishment in America was a practice in decline. But Georgia, having executed more people than any other state from 1930 to 1967, joined with Texas in defending the death penalty at all costs, eventually before the US Supreme Court in 1972. In Furman v. Georgia, the Court declared the two states’ death penalty statutes unconstitutional and suspended capital punishment nationwide. Undeterred, Georgia quickly revised its statute and re-ignited its death penalty machine. In the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia, the Court upheld the new statute, effectively launching the modern era of capital punishment.

Since Georgia prevailed in Gregg, 1,009 individuals have been executed in the United States, and the 1,010th execution is scheduled on the day of Coretta’s funeral. This uninterrupted use of capital punishment throughout the nation suggests that while political leaders in Georgia and beyond seem well aware of the significance of the past week’s events, they have thus far failed to grasp the spirit of humanity underlying that significance.

“Coretta Scott King taught us the power of forgiveness,” says David Elliot, communications director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “And with the power of forgiveness she reminded us of the possibility of human redemption.”

Though the official events honoring Coretta Scott King conclude today, the state of Georgia–with more than 100 inmates on its death row and a history of dictating the nation’s course on capital punishment–has an opportunity to honor her legacy for much longer by recognizing that possibility.

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