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Op-ed: On Being a Malcolm X-like Anti-Death Penalty Crusader

by The Black Wall Street Times
Op-ed: On Being a Malcolm X-like Anti-Death Penalty Crusader
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By Stephen Cooper

Toward the end of his indelibly searing and epic autobiography, as told to writer Alex Haley—the world-renowned author of Roots—Malcolm X said that after going on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, he’d become “convinced that some American whites do want to help cure the rampant racism which is on the path to destroying this country.”

For his about-face on making sweeping indictments of white people, previously a staple of his speeches—whether on a street corner, or as a state guest in a luxuriously appointed ballroom—Malcolm X was criticized by the Nation of Islam and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, from whom he famously split.  

But Malcolm X, one of the most effective critics white America has ever known, who decried “straight-jacketed thinking, and straight-jacketed societies,” believed in the end that: “In our mutual sincerity we might be able to show a road to the salvation of America’s very soul.”

Malcolm X wasn’t ever, to put it blandly—an adjective one could never pin to the charismatic firebrand—naïve about how difficult such an effort would be, and the challenge for white people who accepted it. 

Death Penalty has racist roots

As Malcolm X explained: “Indeed, how can white society atone for enslaving, for raping, for unmanning, for otherwise brutalizing millions of human beings, for centuries? What atonement would the God of Justice demand for the robbery of Black people’s labor, their lives, their true identities, their culture, their history—and even their human dignity?”  

Reparations, dramatically more affirmative action—not less—as well as urgently needed criminal “justice” reform, while not complete, or even remotely satisfying answers to Malcolm X’s righteous inquiries, would undoubtedly be causes Malcolm X would, if alive, champion. 

And Malcolm X wouldn’t just be leading the charge on behalf of Black people, he’d challenge all white people to get on board too. (Malcolm X said: “Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars—caged.”)

As I’ve insisted before, the history of the death penalty in America is hewn from the hell of slavery, subjugation, and the suffering of Black people. This unacceptable racial bias has inarguably been proven to persist in capital punishment in modern times. It is hard, therefore, to imagine—if he had not been gunned down in his prime—a fight for policy change Malcolm X would be more likely to lead than the fight to abolish the death penalty.   

Executions remain racially biased

It’s why, as a white American who wants to do my small part to end the rampant racism that is destroying our country, more than once I have advanced: Poor people in the United States, disproportionately people of color, receive less justice than anyone else—and not just when they are gunned down in the street by police, but when they are methodically strapped down in execution chambers under official color of law.

It’s why I’ve insisted, and will continue insisting—until there’s no longer a need: We must rededicate ourselves to eradicating the vestiges of slavery, including the disproportionate, dehumanizing impact of the death penalty on Black and brown people.

In fact, since I stopped working as a capital habeas lawyer—defending men sentenced to death in Alabama’s federal and state courts in 2015—a large part of my time has been spent advocating to end capital punishment; this column you’re reading will mark the 80th anti-death penalty column I’ve written and published. 

Three of my pieces call out President Biden’s slippery, self-professed, anti-death penalty stance (respectively, these were titled “President Joe Biden is failing at abolishing the death penalty,” “President Biden’s death penalty lie has consequences,” and “President Biden’s silence on the death penalty speaks volumes”). You see, despite my stolid, lifelong support of the Democratic Party, like Malcolm X, “I’m inclined to tell somebody if his glass of water is dirty”—no matter who it belongs to.

 Malcolm X would’ve fought to end the death penalty

Much more thoughtfully, more eloquently, more forcefully, Malcolm X if he were still here—I am sure of it—would make this case for the racial imperative to end the death penalty immediately; indeed, a little known fact is Malcolm X shined arguing for death penalty abolition as a twenty-five-year-old prisoner on a debate team at the Norfolk Prison Colony (now known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution). “I had to start telling the white man about himself to his face. I decided I could do this by putting my name down to debate,” Malcolm X said. 

Just think for a moment what Malcolm X would do today armed with, for example, minister Cece Jones-Davis’s recent column, “Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure is ‘modern-day lynching’” in The Oklahoman. How would Malcolm X have wielded the Death Penalty Information Center’s October 2022 report, “Deeply Rooted: How Racial History Informs Oklahoma’s Death Penalty?”

Tragically, Malcolm X is no longer here to debate, but his words and ideas still burn like the brightest beacon. (“I’m telling it like it is! You never have to worry about me biting my tongue if something I know as truth is on my mind.”)

 White liberals can’t sit on the sidelines

Malcolm X told “us” white liberals, who, sincere in our desire to stamp out anti-Black racism, are committed to doing what we can to truly improve race relations: “Only such real, meaningful actions as those which are sincerely devoted from a deep sense of humanism and moral responsibility can get at the basic causes that produce the racial explosions in America today. Otherwise, the racial explosions are only going to get worse.” 

By the same token, Malcolm X warned about “us” white liberals who are among the greatest impediments to change. (“Yes, I will pull off that liberal’s halo that he spends such efforts cultivating!”)

Abolishing the death penalty is a long, long overdue reform—one that requires morality. It has the power to make our legal system decidedly less racist. But it will never come to pass if we don’t push for it with a Malcolm X-like sense of purpose—and a Malcolm X-like intensity.

Going forward, we must—white, Black, all hues of our collective humanity—be Malcolm X-like anti-death penalty crusaders.


Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq

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