Dr. Martin Luther King’s Moral Opposition to the Death Penalty

01.18.21

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.

I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime. Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week, the federal government executed three people: two Black men and a white woman. Friday’s execution came on Dr. King’s birthday.

“Nothing could dishonor his legacy more profoundly,” Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, wrote in The Washington Post. Bookending his birthday with these killings of two Black men, he wrote, is nothing short of “shameful.”

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.”

Since July, the U.S. has executed 13 people, including a Black man convicted by an all-white jury, two young Black men who were teenagers at the time of their crimes, and a Black man whose evidence of intellectual disability the Supreme Court refused to examine.

The only Native American and the only woman under a federal death sentence were among those executed in this killing spree by the federal government, which executed more people in 2020 than all of the states combined.

The federal death penalty, like in the states, is infected by racial bias. Of the 13 people executed by the Trump administration, nine were people of color. More than half of the 50 people currently under a federal death sentence are people of color: 21 (42%) are Black and 7 (14%) are Latino.

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.”

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.