Image: Lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas on February 1, 1893
On the same day that Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced that a white police officer in Birmingham would not face any charges or accountability for wrongly shooting and killing an innocent young black man whom he mistook for a suspect, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler announced that he believes “old fashioned public hangings” should be restored for people convicted of killing police officers.
In Alabama, black people were terrorized and tormented for decades by public hangings and lynchings by white mobs engaged in extra-legal acts of public violence and torture of African Americans accused of some crime. EJI has documented the racial terror lynchings of over 360 people in Alabama in the first half of the 20th century.
“Legal” public hangings were used by state officials as a strategy to quell mob violence even though these public acts of violence and intimidation also terrorized communities of color, forcing thousands of black people to flee the region.
There has been almost no acknowledgment or response from Alabama elected officials to the state’s lawless and traumatizing violence that public hangings and lynchings created even though state and local law enforcement officers were often active participants in these murders and acts of terror.
Reckless calls for reviving the optics of this terrorism is deeply painful for communities of color and raises real questions about leadership in Alabama today. In light of the state’s painful history of racial terror lynchings and its continuing legacy of trauma and inequality, it is hard to understand why calling for the return of “public hangings” is acceptable behavior from an elected state official.
Not only are these comments ill-informed–Mr. Zeigler calls for a mandatory death penalty, which has been unconstitutional in the United States for over 40 years–but they legitimate and reinforce the distrust many people of color have for leaders who seem hostile to protecting the rights of people of color.
The lack of accountability for the shooting death of Emantic E.J. Bradford Jr. adds to the tragedy and harm of Mr. Zeigler’s comments. Mr. Bradford was shot in the back three times by an Alabama police officer after he was mistaken for a crime suspect. Despite protests and calls from his family that the officer be held accountable, and despite the Attorney General's refusal to meet with Mr. Bradford's family and representatives, the Attorney General has concluded that the shooting death of a 21-year-old black man was justified.
The decisions of these elected officials reveal a serious need for change and reform in Alabama, and for leaders in Alabama to confront and acknowledge the state’s history of racial injustice.