The next time you travel to downtown Houston to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, you should walk a few blocks to Houston’s Old Hanging Tree at the corner of Capital and Bagby streets. That huge 200-year-old oak tree is the location where many “Negroes” were illegally lynched many years ago. Almost 150 years after the Civil War ended, Texas remains haunted by its long history of slavery, and even today the state still practices lynching. But today it is done by the state, rather than a group of white-hooded men. It is called execution by lethal injection.
In the 1920s, as people started to become more repelled by the brutality of illegal lynchings, some people started to look into alternatives to lynching, thanks to the efforts of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP. The answer came from J. W. Thomas in a small town near Waco, who ran for the state Senate on a platform that “hangings should be removed from the emotional atmosphere of local communities to the more remote prison in Huntsville.” In the early hours of Feb. 8, 1924, five condemned black murderers from rural East Texas were electrocuted. Thus began the modern era of executions in Texas. Today, the small town of Huntsville in Walker County is the headquarters of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Walls Unit Prison, which holds Texas’ infamous death chamber. In 2007, the state of Texas executed 25 men, most of them black or Hispanic.
The last person to be execution by Texas was Michael Richard, another black man who died on Sept. 25 only because Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller did not want to stay at work a few minutes past five o’clock to consider his appeal. Who cares about a black man getting executed anyway? Maybe she wanted to make it over to Whole Foods before the masses.
People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions in the U.S. since 1976 and comprise 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution. According to Amnesty International, at least one in five of the African-Americans executed since 1977 were convicted by all-white juries, in cases which displayed a pattern of prosecutors dismissing prospective black jurors during jury selection. A training handbook once used by the Dallas County District Attorney’s office actually said, “Do not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well-educated.” Even though blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers of crimes, 80 percent of people executed since the death penalty was reinstated have been executed for murders involving white victims.
The overwhelming evidence suggesting a racial bias in our criminal justice system and possible execution of African Americans and other minorities, who might have been found innocent otherwise, should shake the soul of every human being. We need to accept the relationship between our current criminal justice system and the 1920s lynch mobs. Now is the time to recognize, as most of the countries around the world have recognized, that the death penalty cannot be implemented fairly. It is the time to follow in the steps of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas and abolish the blatant, unjust application of legalized lynching in our criminal justice system.