Monthly Archive for September, 2011

Troy Davis, Innocence, and the Death Penalty

The death penalty has become so infrequent in the United States that when executions take place, as they do behind closed doors in the quiet hours of the morning, they attract a great deal of attention. This is particularly true when race is in play, as it often is, and as it was in the two executions that took place on September 22, those of Troy Davis and Russell Brewer.

Brewer’s execution received short shrift in what felt like a rare reversal of attention. His crime, the horrific torture and murder of James Byrd, received a vast amount of press coverage back in 1998. Byrd was an African American man who was beaten and chained to the back of a truck by Brewer, who was white, and two other white men. The men dragged Byrd down a backwoods country road, leaving what was left of his body unrecognizable. (Ross Byrd, son of the victim, came out in opposition to the execution, saying that life in prison was punishment enough.) It was a hate crime that equaled or exceeded the bloody excesses of the Jim Crow era, and resulted in Texas Governor and current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Rick Perry signing into law the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, creating new punishments for hate crimes and becoming the foundation for similar federal legislation.

Troy Davis

If Byrd’s death left a legacy that at least seeks to protect people from hate crimes, Troy Davis lived out a much more troubling legacy: the long shadow of Jim Crow. Black men in the American South face execution in numbers far out of proportion to their population, most often for crimes against whites. This isn’t just true in the South, of course, but as Christopher Hitchens wrote recently in Lapham’s Quarterly, “the business of execution is carried on more enthusiastically and more systematically in the states of the former Confederacy.” That enthusiasm was on display at the recent GOP debate, when the crowd cheered the 234 executions that have taken place in Texas under Rick Perry.

That enthusiasm and a snarl of legal technicalities weathered the pull of a steadily eroding case against Davis. In 1991, Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of an off-duty police officer. The testimony of the witnesses called varied wildly as to the description of the shooter, who according to their accounts wore a white shirt or a yellow one, had facial hair or did not, was 20 or 30 years old, stood 6 foot 2 or 5 foot 9, and weighed 130 pounds or 180. And those are just a handful of the inconsistencies that emerged in witness testimony. Seven of nine witnesses later recanted. There was no physical evidence and the safety valves intended to keep innocents from death failed to function.

Yet the power of doubt in Davis’s case was brushed away when the Supreme Court ruled that in his appeal, Davis had to provide compelling evidence of his innocence, meaning that in order to remove himself from death row (and, by the way, spend the rest of his life in prison) Davis would need to meet a substantially higher standard than prosecutors did when they secured a conviction. In dissenting on the Court’s decision to grant Davis an opportunity to challenge his conviction, Justice Antonin Scalia infamously dismissed the idea that so-called actual innocence gave an appelant legal standing under the Constitution.

This renewed focus on witness reliability now joins with a renewed focus on innocence, which followed a renewed focus on the whether lethal injection hurts (if it does, then should our conscience?), which followed concerns about bias, which followed concerns about–well, you get the picture. But rather than these various issues coalescing into a single bloc of opposition against the death penalty, they seem to emerge piecemeal as one, then another, convicted criminal is executed. The concern aroused by the previous execution subsides and is replaced by a new concern. There is, in short, no momentum.

What does this mean? Most likely that the number of death sentences and executions in the United States will continue to decline. But also, that the small number of states and counties that actually execute people will dwindle to some lower limit and stay there. We know that counties that have executed one person are more likely to execute another–this is what one researcher calls “the power law of death.” The power law of death means that counties that have executed before are more likely to continue to do so, and that counties that haven’t won’t start. The numbers bear this out. Harris County, Texas, is the only county in the country that has executed more than 50 people since 1977. Its 116 executions is more than triple as many as occurred in the runner-up, Dallas County. Just 14 counties have executed 10 or more people, all of them in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. If the main predictor of execution is execution, the death penalty can hardly be more arbitrary.

Is execution just a bad habit? Yes and no. We know that racial bias plays a huge role in the death penalty process, from indictment to execution, and that no amount of technical adjustments, such as those made following Furman v. Georgia, can eliminate it. We know that those with diminished mental capacity are more likely to be executed. We know that legal defense for the poor is often inadequate. And finding legitimate solutions to any of these problems, which would be a difficult task with a genuine desire to fix the problem, has become impossible since the death penalty assumed its position as a purity test for American politicians.

With little variation, supporters of an increasingly doctrinaire and punitive Republican Party supports, even relishes (the cheers at the debate), the prospect of execution. Those cheers didn’t signal bloodlust. Instead, they sprang from the kind of brutish defiance and willful ignorance that is a defining feature of modern-day conservatism (see, too, evolution, global warming, taxation). To be a true fan of the Republican team means savoring your opponents’ defeats, even if those defeats come in the form of men and women executed. Democrats, gambling as they often do that they cannot anger liberals so much that they’ll lose their support (they’re wrong–Ralph Nader, anyone?) and committed to bending over backwards to appease so-called Independents and moderates, trot alongside the wagon and sometimes partake in cowardly acts of support, the most notorious occurring in 1992, when candidate Clinton’s left the trail for Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector.


The death penalty’s efficacy as political shorthand exceeds its efficacy as punishment. Occasionally, grown-ups have said as much and abandoned it, most recently Pat Quinn in Illinois. But as long as Americans view the use of the death penalty as a form of political expression and as long as we cling to the belief that it offers closure to victims (a recently-invented concept that has gained traction without much proof of its existence); as long as race, poverty, and mental disability relegate its use to the least-valued among us; as long as we are satisfied with patches and safety valves, it will continue in one form or another. The rickety machinery of death, to use Justice Henry Blackmun’s term, will keep sputtering and lurching along, carrying with it men like Troy Davis and carrying with it, too, our national conscience. Our conscience deserves better stewards than the handful of politicians who insist on doing things as they’ve always been done.

Will Brown and the Omaha Race Riot of 1919

On this day 92 years ago, Omaha’s racial tensions reached a violent climax during a riot that resulted in the brutal lynching of a 41-year-old African American man, Will Brown, and the heavy beating of Omaha’s  Mayor, Edward P. Smith.

Riots had broken out across the country during the summer of 1919, leaving American cities tense—and Omaha, in the midst of dramatic political changes, was no different. Brown, accused of raping a young white woman on September 25, was brought to the Douglass County Courthouse to await trial—but he would never have the opportunity to prove his innocence. On the night of September 28, a mob numbering in the thousands converged on the courthouse, firing guns and later setting the building on fire. When the mayor tried to intervene, he became the target of the mob’s anger. Beaten unconscious, Mayor Smith would later awake in the hospital, bruised and battered.

When the mob got their hands on Brown, he was severely beaten, dragged by a rope, shot, and burned on the street. Federal troops would soon descend on Omaha and restore order, but the damage had been done. The incident—occurring three decades before the period traditionally thought of as the civil rights movement—would become one in a long string of violent incidents that would characterize interactions between blacks and whites during the long struggle for civil rights. (a joint effort between the Nebraska Department of Education, the Nebraska State Historical Society, and Nebraska Educational Telecommunications) hosts an expansive multimedia exhibit on the incident. Check it out here.

To see how one Nebraska newspaper reported the day’s events, read this article.

Remembering the Little Rock Nine

On this day 54 years ago, after weeks of threats and violence, nine African American teenagers attended their first full day at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, thus marking the official integration of the Little Rock school district. These students would come to symbolize a struggle for school desegregation that lasted for years following the famous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

To see the New York Times’ front-page coverage of the desegregation attempts, click here. Four years ago, the New York Times interviewed seven of the nine; listen here.

The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies provides online access to several portions of video footage! Check it out here.

We have picked today to mark the anniversary, but it actually took several days for the African American students to enter Central High. Here is what happened. Two days prior to the beginning of the 1957-1958 school year, a district court judge ordered Little Rock to integrate as planned, despite petitions against the move. Interestingly, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus was among those opposed to desegregation, and would come to play a prominent role in the district’s attempts to remain segregated.

Although the students successfully entered the school on September 23, 1957 (19 days after official start of the school year), violence and threats led police officers to escort them back out. The next day, President Eisenhower issued an executive order calling on the U.S. Army and Arkansas National Guard to protect the students. On September 25, the nine students entered the building—escorted by more than 1,000 armed soldiers—and completed their first full day of school.

The students’ troubles were far from over, however. Although the National Guard took over guard duty after the Army pulled out, they couldn’t provide complete protection at all times. The students endured intimidation, bullying, and threats of violence, as well as physical and verbal attacks. One of the eight was later expelled for reacting to a white student’s behavior.

In May 1958, one of the nine, Ernest Greene, became the first African American to graduate from Central High School. Progress was halted in 1958 however, when schools across the district were closed by order of Governor Faubus, in an attempt to halt integration. Despite this, many of the nine went on to gain higher education.

More the half a century later, Little Rock’s integration is a common feature of American history courses, and the students have come to symbolize the civil rights struggle—a struggle that, although perhaps not as apparent now as it was at the time, continues across the country.

Remembering Four Young Victims of the KKK

On this day 48 years ago, four young girls were killed by the blast of a KKK bomb. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when the explosion rocked a church formerly known as the meeting place for prominent civil rights leaders.

Although the four were certainly not the first victims of the KKK’s violence, the murder of girls so young and innocent (and in a Church, no less) engendered shock and horror across the country, a fact illustrated by the crowd of mourners—8,000 people strong—who attended the funeral.

Grief and anger fueled an increased push against racial discrimination and violence. The four children came to symbolize a painful chapter in America’s history, and are remembered to this day as innocent victims whose murder served as a catalyst for much-needed societal changes—changes which they unfortunately did not live to witness.

The Birmingham Public Library hosts an expansive digital collection, complete with photographs, newspaper clippings, and other documents.

Tim Tyson on “the Gay Boogieman Game”

A great article from Duke’s Tim Tyson in yesterday’s Winston-Salem Journal on North Carolina’s deeply troubling progress toward a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage demonstrates the power of historical knowledge to animate contributions to contemporary debates (not to mention Tyson’s flair with a pen). It’s worth a read.

The bulk of the push for a constitutional amendment to do what the law already does comes from the loathsome Family Research Council, who believe that anti-gay discrimination is a good way to get minority voters to the polls. Of course if the vote-suppression measures they and their ilk hope for are enacted, these very same minorities will have more trouble voting. It’s a win-win.

This space offers a chance to give some faint praise to the NAACP (and stronger praise to the head of North Carolina’s chapter, William Barber). Though without the conviction to come out strongly in opposition to anti-gay discrimination through marriage bans generally (“The NAACP does not and has not taken a position endorsing or opposing Gay Marriage” the organization said in a statement.) and though has repeated the heartless pap of anti-gay activists posing as political moderates (good people disagree on the issue), Barber wrote a strongly-worded letter yesterday that unequivocal opposition to a gay marriage ban in this state. Read it here.





Civil Rights History Project

From our friends at the American Folklife Center:

On May 12, 2009, the U. S. Congress authorized a national initiative by passing The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009 (PDF here, if you’re interested). The law directs the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to conduct a survey of existing oral history collections with relevance to the Civil Rights Movement, and to record new interviews with people who participated in the Movement. The survey information and portions of selected interviews will be made available worldwide through the Project website. The interviews will become a permanent part of the national library and the national museum.

This portal principally focuses on making available information about relevant audiovisual collections throughout the country. Because the collections reside at a wide range of institutions, we are not able to provide access to the collections themselves. The repositories include local historical societies, university special collections, and public libraries. The database will allow users to search for and locate information about collections in the following ways: by broad topic listings, by Library of Congress Subject Headings, by the name of the collection or the repository, and by the geographic location of the repository. In some instances one can locate interviews by searching on the names of individual CRM participants, if the repositories have made such information available through their websites and/or finding aids.

Why is this relevant? Well, of course, the Southern Oral History Program’s resources are included in this survey. And SOHP alums Willie Griffin and Elizabeth Gritter were two of the four scholars who compiled the list.

But even more exciting is the fact that the Southern Oral History Program is contracted to complete the interviews that will join the Library of Congress collection and become part of the museum. The SOHP has done thirty-five of the fifty planned interviews, speaking with Judge Matthew Perry shortly before his death; with a family of activists in Bogalusa, LA; and with Pete Seeger, among others.

Impact on Muslims at Home and Abroad

On Monday, September 12, Arif Alikhan, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, will speak at 5 p.m. in the FedEx Global Education Center on Pittsboro Street in Chapel Hill. Afterward a panel discussion, “9/11 Ten Years Later: The Impact on Muslims at Home and Abroad,” will feature representatives of UNC, Duke and the Islamic Association of Raleigh.

For more information on UNC-Chapel Hill’s commemoration of the events of September 11, 2001, click here.

1,100 Books for Understanding 9/11

The Association of American University Presses (AAUP) has released a revised and updated version of the original Books for Understanding list, “September 11, 2001.”

It was first published just a week after the 9/11 terror attacks, and reflected the wide-ranging need for some, any, possible understanding of what had happened—listing just over 100 titles on topics from the history of the World Trade Center to studies of political Islam. Today, the bibliography lists approximately 1,100 books and journals. In this latest revision, they’ve greatly expanded the focus on work published about September 11 and its cultural, political, and global impacts.

This first bibliography provided the groundwork for an ongoing public service in the Books for Understanding program. In the past 10 years, AAUP has published 44 bibliographies on current events and major news stories, encompassing nearly 10,000 vital works of scholarship, analysis, history, and literature published by our member presses. Each of these titles helps to transform information into understanding.

The AAUP thanks all of the presses and individuals who have participated in Books for Understanding over the past decade.   The list was assembled by AAUP’s Brenna McLaughlin, Electronic and Strategic Initiatives Director, and Regan Colestock, Communications Coordinator.


Announcing “Content, Context, and Capacity: A Collaborative Large-Scale Digitization Project on the Long Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina”

The Triangle Research Libraries Network (composed of Duke University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill libraries) has been awarded a $150,000 grant to be used for the collaborative large-scale digitization of 40 archival and manuscript collections documenting the Long Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina. The project, entitled “Content, Context and Capacity: A Collaborative Large-Scale Digitization Project on the Long Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina” is projected to span three years, with funding renewed annually by LSTA. LSTA funds awarded by the State Library of North Carolina are made possible through funding from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act as administered by the State Library of North Carolina, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.

Each university library holds outstanding unique primary source materials that document the Long Civil Rights Movement, during which struggles for racial, social, and economic justice reshaped the cultural and political landscapes of North Carolina and America. The materials selected for digitization document grassroots activism and institutionalized efforts during the LCRM, as well as the resistance on the emerging New Right that drove and was transformed by the LCRM. To provide both the content and context requisite for archival research, each collection will be digitized in its entirety—every page of every item in every folder. The digitized collections will be available online free of charge and will be searchable both through Search TRLN ( and the individual libraries’ websites.

The goals of the project are to promote and support educational and scholarly research uses of modern primary source materials, to provide a proof of concept for a collaborative approach to large-scale digitization, to test interinstitutional workflows, and to develop shared standards and practices for large-scale digitization among TRLN Libraries.

To learn more about the project, please visit our website: or contact Joyce Chapman, Project Librarian for the grant, at chapmajc at email dot unc dot edu.