Death penalty abolished in former Confederate state

WW commentary


On March 23, I was sad and gloomy all day as I am every year on this date — the day in 1993 that I witnessed a dear friend, Carlos Santana, be legally lynched by the State of Texas. He was executed, even though he did not kill anyone.

Charlottesville, Va., 2015.

But March 24, I heard the news that Virginia had just abolished its death penalty. I smiled and let out a whoop and holler, thinking that this racist, terrorist practice must be coming to an end if a Southern, former Confederate state could abolish it. My gloom was gone.

The capital of the Confederacy was a city in Virginia — Richmond. And now one of the legacies of slavery, legal lynchings, has been outlawed in Virginia.

“The symbolic value of a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy dismantling this tool of racial oppression cannot be overstated,” said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center. (

Virginia’s death penalty, like other states in the South, “has deep roots in slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation. Virginia explicitly provided different penalties for white people and its enslaved population,” he continued.

Fifty years of abolition work

I have been a prison abolitionist since the 1970s and a death penalty abolitionist since I stood outside Texas’ death house on Dec. 7, 1982, when Texas carried out its first execution in the so-called “modern” era of a Black man named Charlie Brooks. 

The more I visit prisoners, the more I learn about capital punishment, the more I sit in courtrooms and see the parades of poor people, particularly Black and Brown people, taking plea deals, the clearer it is that this whole criminal injustice system must be abolished.

It has been proven time and again that racism and the death penalty work hand in glove. In fact, police in the U.S. South came about as a result of the slave patrols. Prisons in the South came about after the Civil War and Reconstruction to incarcerate people so that they could be leased out to plantation and business owners, who needed workers to harvest their crops or dig in their mines.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the lynchings after the Civil War, during the high times of the Ku Klux Klan, weren’t connected to legal executions in the prisons. As the title of a book on Texas history, “The Rope, the Chair and the Needle,” lays out, there was a direct development of capital punishment from illegal and legal lynchings to today’s practice of executions in the South.

In late summer 1923, a bill was passed in Texas that changed the method of executions from hangings in individual counties to using the new electric chair in one central location. On the first day that the electric chair was used in Texas, Feb. 8, 1924, five African American men were electrocuted in Huntsville. Five men and all were Black!

I have found their graves at the prison cemetery in Huntsville, and I visit them every so often. One man has always stuck in my mind, because his name was George Washington. I think about his momma, and how she named him after the first U.S. president, and how she probably had high hopes for her baby. He did make history, but surely not what his momma had in mind. He became part of this group of five Black men who met the modern device of the electric chair for the first time in Texas history.

After 413 years, Virginia makes history

March 24, outside the correctional center in Virginia — where 101 people have been executed in recent times — Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill that ended the death penalty in that state. It was a move that came sooner than expected even by people who have long been fighting to abolish the practice. 

In 1991, the founders of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty took the first steps toward ending state-sponsored killing. 

VADP commented on the bill: “Virginia’s use of the death penalty dates back over 400 years — to 1608, when Jamestown settlers carried out the first recorded execution in the then-European colonies. In the centuries since, amid periods of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation, Virginia has executed hundreds of people. Since 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, a higher percentage of death row inmates than any other U.S. state, and the highest number of state executions second only to Texas. After 413 years, after 1,390 executions, it is over.”

Texas prison activist speaks on abolition

In a phone call with Texas prison activist Nanon Williams, he told Workers World, “I was on death row for over a decade and only got off because I was 17 when arrested for a crime I did not commit. So, I still sit here in prison, an innocent man, but no longer facing execution. I applaud the State of Virginia. It certainly signifies changing mentalities, especially for the South.

“At the same time, I fear that Texas may hold on to their views even stronger now,” said Williams. “Texas took pride in seceding from the Union. They take pride in being tough on crime. Their old weapons of war like the death penalty are well-oiled machines used against people of color and poor people. Texas was the last state to allow phone calls from prison, the last state to stop executing kids. I hope others will follow Virginia, but I know Texas takes pride in keeping their old racist system intact.”

More abolition in the South?

What the news in Virginia signifies is that the number of states abolishing the death penalty in the U.S. continues. Twenty-three states have now enacted abolition, and three more have moratoria on executions. That is 26 states, a majority of the 50 states.

But even more important, it means that the Southern states, where most executions have been carried out, can change. The former Confederate states have been taking down statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy. Now one of the largest companies in the world, Amazon, has almost 5,000 majority Black workers in Bessemer, Ala., fighting to join a union. 

The days of Southern states executing its people could be heading to an end. The days of nonunion shops proliferating in the South may be coming to an end.

Change is inevitable, and change is coming. There is always light at the end of a tunnel, including in the South! 


Photo Credit: Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

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