The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for a more just and equitable society included a fundamental opposition to the death penalty. To Dr. King, capital punishment was both wrong as a matter of morality and misguided as a matter of policy.
In 1958, Dr. King led a prayer pilgrimage to Montgomery to protest the State of Alabama’s execution of Jeremiah Reeves, a Black 16-year-old accused of raping a white woman and sentenced to death by an all-white jury.
On the steps of the state capital, Dr. King called the execution a “tragic and unsavory injustice” and pointed out “the severity and inequality” of the death penalty, exemplified by the killing of Jeremiah Reeves.
“Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rarely ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence,” he said. But Jeremiah Reeves, “who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair.”
Dr. King’s commitment to ending the death penalty was maintained by his widow and family. The late Coretta Scott King—whose husband and mother-in-law both were assassinated—spoke out against the practice. “An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation,” she proclaimed. “Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”
Public support for the death penalty is now at its lowest level in a half-century, with opposition higher than any time since 1966, as more Americans—from police officers to family members of murder victims—recognize that executing people does not make us safer. Instead, as Dr. King put it, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
But many states persist in seeking death sentences, including Alabama, which has scheduled the execution of Matthew Reeves, a Black man suffering from intellectual disability, on January 27.