It’s no coincidence that the states with the highest historical lynching rates are the same states with the highest number of modern day executions.
Race has played an outsized role in determining who lives and who dies at the hands of the legal system in the South for decades. Today, the use of the death penalty in the South mirrors the lynchings of the past and is disproportionately reserved for those who are poor and Black.
As I write this, the state of Tennessee is set to execute a Black man with an intellectual disability named Pervis Payne on Dec. 3. Pervis was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of a white woman, even though he had no criminal history, no history of violence, and has always maintained his innocence.
Today, 51% of the people on death row in Tennessee are Black, and nationwide, the vast majority of people on death row are there for killing white people. In Pervis’ case, the prosecution leaned on racist stereotypes to secure a conviction and death sentence. They knew that they’d be able to prey on implicit and explicit biases of the jury to portray Pervis, known to be kind and respectful, as a violent person.
I’ve been working in the justice reform space in Tennessee for years, and I know that if we’re going to keep pursuing justice and reform in southern states, then we have to have an honest conversation about the role race plays in capital punishment.