Georgia, Growing up in the South, Death Penalty, Racism, Representation, Furman v. Georgia
In 1951, I was born in the state of Georgia in a town so small my high school graduating class was composed of thirty students. I started kindergarten with most of them. We were 40 miles from Selma. On the day John Lewis walked over the William Pettes bridge, I came home to find my mother sitting in front of the television, crying. I had never seen my mother cry. She said one thing: “I should have been there.”
I grew up keenly interested in the subject of justice. One reason for this was that growing up, I sat at a dinner table every night and listened to a raging debate over race relations and war. Also, both my parents grew up poor. When I say poor, I don’t mean they didn’t have the right clothes to wear to the prom. I mean poor – mean, cold, scary poor during the Depression. Neither of them ever got over it.
The lessons my parents taught us about inequality, about discrimination, about the hurt and cruelty of being poor, of being discriminated against, of being denied justice were not theoretical. They were real and conveyed with passion.
Not surprisingly, I became a criminologist. My entire adult life has been spent studying crime, law and social justice. And, it’s not just an academic exercise for me. Like my parents, I feel it in my guts. I feel injustice, unfairness and pain. Somewhere along the line I started to think there were only two sorts of people in the world – those who saw pain and vulnerability and need and moved instinctively to do something about it and people who saw pain and vulnerability and need and couldn’t wait to take advantage of it. I am glad my parents are not alive to see the second type of people in control of the country.
I am back in Georgia now after living a great many places. I am ashamed to note that this month Georgia carried out the 1500th execution since the return of the death penalty in 1976.
The case that led the Supreme Court to put a temporary halt to the death penalty came from my state, Furman v. Georgia. Furman was decided in 1976. The court looked at the death penalty and decided that it was administered in an “arbitrary, discriminatory and capricious manner.” Four years later, the state overcame the objections of the Supreme Court and the death penalty was reinstated.
But, the truth is that all these years later the administration of the death penalty is still characterized by wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, geographic disparity and socioeconomic and racial bias. And, to top it off, it costs a great deal of money, much more than keeping dangerous people inside prisons for life.
I am ashamed of the state of Georgia.