Guest ContributorDuring Easter season, Christians worldwide celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It occurs in the early spring, a season rife with anticipation and the promise of new beginnings; of the shoots of green plants pushing their way through soil warmed by the sun, thawed after a long and frozen winter; of new leaves opening on trees and bushes; of blossoming flowers upturned to the rays of a welcoming sun.
This year, in a tragic historic coincidence, Easter Sunday fell on the 42nd anniversary of the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil and human rights champion, a self-described “drum major for peace.” Dr. King was shot dead on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel with friends and fellow activists. They were in Memphis to support economic justice for striking sanitation workers, a majority of whom were African American.Uprisings exploded in several urban U.S. cities in reaction to the murder – expressions of uncontrollable grief, rage, and hopelessness, now that the man who had led millions up figurative mountaintops where all could share in his vision of a promised land where races could live together in equality, respect and love, was so violently and brutally taken from them.
Undoubtedly such anger and anguish back then prompted many to call for the execution of whoever was responsible for killing Dr. King. But neither Dr. King nor his immediate family had ever supported capital punishment. For Dr. King, a follower of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, whose massive nonviolent demonstrations brought down British colonial rule in India – a tactic that Dr. King later used with great success in the sit-ins, pray-ins, and other anti-segregation protests in the Deep South – it was impossible to simultaneously believe in nonviolence as a way of life and also believe in the death penalty.
Dr. King felt the punishment effectively writes off human beings as forever irredeemable and unforgivable. “Make your way to death row and speak with the tragic victims of criminality,” he said. “As they prepare to make their pathetic walk to the electric chair, their hopeless cry is that society will not forgive. Capital punishment is society's final assertion that it will not forgive.”
“I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime - rape and murder included,” Dr. King asserted. “Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”Dr. King’s family, suddenly left without a husband and father 42 years ago, nevertheless agreed with his views that the death penalty perpetuates violence.
“As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses,” his widow, Coretta Scott King, once 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.”
Such sentiments have been echoed by two of his children. “Having lost my father and grandmother to gun violence, I will understand the deep hurt and anger felt by the loved ones of those who have been murdered,” Reverend Bernice King, recently named President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was once led by her father, had stated. “Yet I can't accept the judgment that their killers deserve to be executed. This merely perpetuates the tragic, unending cycle of violence that destroys our hope for a decent society.” His son, Martin Luther King, III, who was named for his father and grandfather, was quoted as saying, “I should be on the front line for those advocating the death penalty, [but] we have always been consistently against the death penalty.”
The King family’s beliefs are not unusual. They are shared by many murder victims’ families. Among the members of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Board of Directors, three individuals – New Hampshire State Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, Bill Pelke and Bud Welch – lost family members to murder. Rep. Cushing’s father was killed by gunfire through the family home’s screen door. Pelke’s grandmother was killed in the course of a robbery of her home by four teenaged girls. Welch’s daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.
The three are active in organizations working to rid the United States and the world of capital punishment – Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and Journey of Hope . . . from Violence to Healing. Victims’ families and the death penalty abolition movement have long worked together to let the public know that the death penalty does not help, but harms such families. The expensive punishment drains needed resources from grief counseling, victims’ families’ compensation, and other services and programs that enable these families to heal. Together, the voices of abolitionists and such murder victims’ families’ organizations and victims’ family members are amplified, united, as they say, “Please – don’t kill in our names.”It is my hope that this Easter season, as many of us celebrate the resurrection of He who also stood for nonviolence and peace, we remember the words of Dr. King and his family members who rejected a punishment system that in the end dehumanizes us all. “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” Dr. King said. “... In fact, violence merely increases hate. ... Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
Margaret Summers is the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Director of Communications.