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Opinion | Alabama executions: strictly a Christian affair

Stephen Cooper

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Over 60 years ago, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “[t]he basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. While the State has the power to punish, the Amendment stands to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards.”

Turning this concept – at the root of how we define “cruel and unusual” punishment in this country – on its head, this coming Thursday the State of Alabama will execute Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray, and, though all Christian inmates executed in Alabama are afforded a spiritual advisor, one permitted to have physical contact and to minister to them during their final moments, Mr. Ray will not be granted this same measure of human dignity. Why? For one reason, and one reason only: he’s Muslim.

Arguing precisely this point in federal court last week, public defender Spencer Hahn urged United States District Judge W. Keith Watkins, to order, over Alabama’s religiously bigoted objections, that Mr. Ray be allowed to have his own spiritual advisor in the execution chamber – a Muslim imam, one already approved by Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) for contact visits with Ray; Hahn urged: “Why does Mr. Ray not get the same benefit as a Christian, non-Catholic condemned inmate would? If Mr. Ray were a standard, everyday Protestant Lutheran Christian, he would have a spiritual advisor there who could touch his hand and pray with him in his final moments. But because he happens to be a Muslim – and who knows if the next person is going to be a Catholic or Jewish or a Buddhist – they don’t get that benefit? We would dispute that there is a compelling governmental interest in allowing one type of religious leader into an area and not another.”

But, in a dog-whistle response, ignoring, as I’ve written elsewhere, the state’s “odious tradition of ducking and dodging death penalty accountability” for its manifold patently botched executions – executions that have devolved into excruciating medieval torture sessions because of the medically untrained personnel and unsuitable chemicals Alabama insists on using, and not remotely because of the threatened presence of a non-Christian spiritual advisor – Assistant Attorney General Richard Anderson argued: “[T]here is a very well-established interest in maintaining prison security and the safety and orderliness of prison operations. That is – that’s the main backbone of what our interest is in regulating who goes in and out of, particularly, the execution chamber itself.”

Unsubtly and unscrupulously, Anderson maintained that, in Alabama, only a Christian spiritual advisor can be trusted to maintain proper decorum and discipline during an execution, because “[y]ou know, whether overtly or inadvertently or intentionally, things could go wrong. That is the reason why we restrict access to that room.”

But what about Judge Watkins, you ask? Surely a federal judge would see through this farcical argument, one that makes an end-run around the Constitution while freely, offensively, and unjustifiably casting aspersions on any spiritual advisor not Christian?

Nope. Instead, Watkins, who once attacked the entire medical profession in a judicial opinion over the diminishing access to lethal injection drugs, ate up Anderson’s argument as if it was the most delectable piece of apple pie, served hot and piping fresh on the Fourth of July.

In Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 case in which the Supreme Court briefly struck down the death penalty in the United States, Justice William Brennan wrote in his concurrence: “Death is truly an awesome punishment. The calculated killing of a human being by the State involves, by its very nature, a denial of the person’s humanity”; Brennan complained that the “evolution of [the death penalty] evidences not that it is an inevitable part of the American scene, but that it has proved progressively more troublesome to the national conscience.”

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If this is true, it is precisely in such a situation as this one involving Domineque Ray’s execution, that conscientious, justice-loving Americans, especially Alabamians, must speak up! On social media, by telephone, by post, by email, and in the street outside the offices of government, now is the time to make your objections to this pending abomination heard.

Following Justice Brennan’s noble example, we must object to religious bigotry and a lethal injection protocol that treats “members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded.” The time to be on record against a process disregarding “that even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity” is now.

 

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 @SteveCooperEsq

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Opinion | Dr. King’s legacy lives on 52 years later

David Person

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On April 4, 1968, I was watching the little black and white television in our living room when the newscaster said that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. My tears flowed freely. Even though I was only 4, I knew that his death was a tragedy, especially for little black boys like me.

My parents and I lived on Chicago’s Southside in a yellow, three-story apartment building at the corner of 91st and Throop St. Three floors, three apartments, each one running the full length of the building with a huge picture window in the living room. Daylight streamed through ours as I watched the newscast through my tears, riveted by sorrow and fear.

King was my hero, a man who courageously stood for justice and peace, even when threatened with violence. He was an eloquent preacher, whose soaring lines and velvet tones even captivated little children. And he was a father who, like my own, had tried to explain the nonsensical evil of racism to his child.

Yolanda, the oldest of the King children, had wanted to go to Fun Town, an amusement park in Atlanta. He had to explain to her that Fun Town was only open to white children. Chicago also had a Fun Town, but because it was in the black community – 95th and Stony Island Ave. – I don’t recall it being off-limits to me and other African-American children.

But the Chicago of the 1960s wasn’t that different from the Jim Crow South. Black families who tried to move into white neighborhoods were run out. The dividing lines were stark and clear. In fact, I only saw white Chicagoans while watching the news or when shopping downtown.

Northern segregation had a profoundly negative economic impact on black Chicago. It was so bad that three years before his assassination, King and his family actually moved to Chicago to apply his civil rights strategies to slums, low-wage jobs and overcrowded schools.

When he led a march through Marquette Park, a notoriously all-white enclave on the Southside, someone hit him in the back of the head with a rock. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South,” King said. “But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

King’s Chicago experiences undoubtedly shaped my reaction when I learned of his death. I know that because my father was a news junkie, politically aware, and what we used to call a “race man” – meaning that he identified as a black man more than as an American or even a Christian. He also was a card-carrying Republican, but of the Eisenhower type, not Goldwater or Nixon. So he and my mother admired Dr. King, and passed that admiration on to me.

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And I retain it today, 52 years after his assassination. In fact, it’s grown stronger and deeper through the years.

My favorite King quote comes from his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” preached at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in 1957: “Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of – no matter what he does, you see God’s image there.”

King was an expert in having enemies. He had more than his fair share, including whoever actually killed him. (The King family believes that convicted King assassin James Earl Ray was framed. Dr. William F. Pepper’s book “An Act of State” explains why.)
But what King undoubtedly knew, and what his killers failed to fathom, is that while prophets die, their dreams or prophecies live on. And true prophets always will be validated by history and time.

Which is why I expect Dr. King’s legacy to outlive all of us.

 

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Opinion | Jobs to move America

Patricia Todd

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Before COVID-19 swept the country, public officials celebrated Alabama’s 2.7 percent unemployment rate: it was a record low for our state, and lower than the national average. But statistics never tell the full story. Were the jobs Alabamians working good ones? With paid sick, family, and medical leave to protect workers from COVID-19? Were people working more than one job to make ends meet?

As we reckon with a pandemic and pending economic recession of a magnitude difficult to comprehend, Alabama needs to start looking beyond unemployment rates to ask some soul-searching questions. As industry after industry demands huge public bailouts, the South’s history of offering big corporate giveaways represents a glaring example of why public subsidies should only be on the table if public officials put people and workers first.

Corporate subsidies, in the form of economic tax incentives, have become a popular tool that cities and states use to lure companies to a specific location. The fight over where Amazon would set up its second headquarters — cities raced to provide the most attractive incentive packages, offering billions of our public dollars to sweeten the deal — put a spotlight on the problems with these subsidies. Even after national outrage over the bidding war for Amazon, economic development specialists and elected officials continued to tell us that these subsidies were critical to creating jobs and growing the economy. Cities and states like Alabama still compete aggressively to bring corporations to our backyards, using our public dollars as bait. Promises of subsidies include abatement of income and property taxes, infrastructure development, workforce training, and sometimes cash. But the problem that COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief is that promises made are not always promises delivered. What’s worse, many of these promises weren’t good enough to begin with.

In Alabama, we celebrate the ribbon cutting of a new manufacturer breaking ground on a new plant and announcing new jobs that will be created. Yet, rarely are we told how much the state or municipality paid to the corporation to bring those jobs to the area or given details about the return on investment. Now that COVID-19 is shutting down production at manufacturing plants across our state, leaving many workers high and dry, it’s time to ask how our public dollars can be most effectively invested in private companies to ensure the outcomes we need.

Corporate subsidies have cost Alabama over $3.5 billion dollars over the past decade. The public has no information on how money was spent — or what we got for it. These subsidies do not require corporations to commit to providing a living wage; any paid sick, family, or medical leave; or hiring goals for marginalized communities. Most taxpayers don’t even know where to look for the information. This story holds true across the South.

Alabamians, like many of our Southern neighbors, cannot afford any loss of revenue. According to Alabama Possible, our state’s poverty rate is 18.9 percent, making us the 6th poorest state in the country. Our education system, mental health services, and public infrastructure are in dire need of funding. The National Center for Education Statistics ranks Alabama last in math, reading, and science. We also rank at the bottom in teacher pay, infrastructure, and access to health care. As a result, we lack the services and infrastructure needed to support working families through a crisis like COVID-19.

Why? For decades, our state has siphoned money from these critical public services and social infrastructure to provide corporations with handsome tax incentives in exchange for little more than a handshake deal. Our state is lining the pockets of corporate CEOs, not workers and communities.

COVID-19 makes it clear that Southerners deserve a better deal.

Which is why Jobs to Move America is building a research-action program, headquartered in Birmingham, to win sunshine and accountability policies in the South. We believe that together, we can turn the tide on endless and unaccountable corporate giveaways. We can demand limits on incentives and institute requirements that companies receiving our precious public dollars provide a living wage, benefits, a safe work environment free of racism and gender discrimination, and hiring preferences for marginalized and underrepresented communities. We can also demand a public accountability report about every company that receives subsidies so that Southerners can scrutinize whether their public dollars are actually doing public good.

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To get there, we need to understand and document all the public dollars that our state has given away. We’ll write reports about that spending, we’ll dig into the consequences of corporate giveaways on our communities and workers. We’ll work in coalition with community-based organizations and social justice groups, like Alabama Arise, to educate public officials and community leaders about the impact of these subsidies. And eventually, we’ll win legislation that ensures our public dollars create the kind of return on investment that we believe in: good jobs and healthy communities.

Do Mercedes, Amazon and Walmart really need generous tax subsidies to operate business as usual? The clear answer is no. It is time to get our priorities in order and take care of our own people — instead of corporate shareholders.


Patricia Todd is the Southern Director at Jobs to Move America. Patricia has socially and professionally advocated for public policies relevant to social justice, education, HIV/AIDS, and a wide range of issues affect the entire Birmingham community for over twenty years. Patricia was elected to the Alabama Legislature as the State Representative for House District 54 in November of 2006 as the first openly gay elected official in Alabama’s history. She retired from the legislature in 2018.

 

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Opinion | For humanitarian and public health reasons, we need to get people out of our jails

Bishop Van Moody

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For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners (Psalm 69:33)

We are facing a crisis unlike any in our lifetime. A virus is infecting us at unprecedented rates. Over 100,000 have been infected in the United States and the death toll in our country is already in the thousands. 

But we’re not doing everything possible to keep us safe. The county jails in Alabama, which lock up thousands of people, are a major health risk. The incarcerated population can’t practice “social distancing” and instead are left to languish in these facilities with no soap or supplies to sanitize their own cells.

Imprisoned  people are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19. People incarcerated in jails are housed in close quarters, and are often in poor health. And, according to a report from the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the county jail population quadrupled between 2014 and 2018.

The way to mitigate that health risk is clear. We need to release people who are no risk to our communities and vulnerable to exposure immediately. And jail officials need to come up with a plan, and make it public, for how they will deal with a COVID-19 outbreak in their facility. 

Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledged the danger in her State of Emergency declaration, finding that “the condition of jails inherently heightens the possibility of COVID-19 transmission.”  Ivey’s declaration said that people charged with crimes could be served with a summons instead of being arrested. But that doesn’t do much for the people already locked up and awaiting trial. 

And a COVID-19 outbreak in these jails with the current incarcerated population would be disastrous for public health. The incarcerated people who get infected would have to be taken to our already overcrowded hospitals, and people who work in the jails are also in danger of both being infected, and spreading the infection to people on the outside. Lowering the total number of people locked up would make an outbreak less likely, and also make it easier to quarantine people who have been infected.

But there is also a moral and humanitarian reason to get people out of these jails. The crime rate in our state didn’t quadruple in the last few years, but our jail population did. Many of the people now locked up aren’t there because they committed horrible crimes, they’re locked up because they’re too poor to afford bail. Some are even elderly and therefore at “higher risk for severe illness”, according to the CDC.

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It is wrong to lock people up because they can’t afford to pay bail. If a judge has already decided that someone does not pose a threat to the community and they can get out of jail if they can pay a fee, then they shouldn’t be locked up at all during a crisis like this.Poverty is not a crime and under these circumstances, it should not put you at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Last month county jail inmates with bonds under $5,000 were ordered released in Autauga, Elmore and Chilton Counties, as long as the sheriffs and wardens sign off on it. Mobile Countyhas also announced it would release certain pre-trial inmates.. These actions were taken due to fears of the spread of COVID-19.

Other states have also started doing this. Montana, California, New Jersey, Washington and Wyoming are amongthe states that have actively worked to reduce it’s incarcerated population in the last few weeks.

Actions like these need to be the norm going forward. COVID-19 is scary, but we must meet it with Christian love and compassion. We must extend that to our brothers and sisters behind bars who pose no threat to our communities and are awaiting their day in court. We must consider those who are elderly and already ill. This virus is the worst thing many of us have seen in our lifetimes, let’s combat it with love and compassion, instead of hate and fear.

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Opinion | Remembering civil rights icon Rev. Joseph E. Lowery

Derryn Moten

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Co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery died on March 27, 2020.  He and his clerical brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisaged SCLC as the national platform needed to inveigh segregation, materialism, and militarism in the South and nation. King became the first SCLC president in 1957, a position he held until his assassination in 1968.  Lowery headed SCLC from 1977 until 1997.

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Lowery taught school in Birmingham before becoming a minister. He pastored his first church in the Magic City. He also led the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama and became the leader of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, the precursor of the Montgomery Improvement Association, MIA.

Perhaps less known is that Joseph Lowery was the last living co-defendant of the landmark Sullivan v. New York Times Company, a libel lawsuit filed by City of Montgomery and State of Alabama officials against the New York Times and Reverends Ralph D. Abernathy, Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Joseph E. Lowery, and Solomon S. Seay, Sr. Montgomery City Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan, Public Affairs Commissioner Frank Parks, and Mayor Earl James filed $500,000,00 libel lawsuits each.  Gov. John Patterson sued the same defendants adding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for $1 million dollars.

The City and State alleged that the March 29, 1960 New York Times advertisement paid for by The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, defamed and libeled the plaintiffs by knowingly publishing false statements.  A chief bone of contention was a paragraph, 39 words, describing actions of the City of Montgomery Police Department against Alabama State College students. On February 25, 1960, those same ASC students sat-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse Cafeteria.  This was Alabama’s first sit-in demonstration. The ad claimed “police armed with shotguns and tear gas ringed the campus and padlocked the dining hall.”

The New York Times ad sought to raise funds for a trial Dr. King faced in Alabama for tax fraud. The City and State targeted the ministers because they were signatories to the ad. LorraineHansbury, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Nat King Cole, and Ruby Dee, among others, also signed the ad. Defense counsel argued the Black ministers were included because of their friendships with Dr. King.  The lawsuits sought to harass, harangue, and financially ruin these civil rights leaders.  Temporarily, that is exactly what the suits accomplished.  A collective judgment of $3 million dollars, and an inability to secure a surety bond, allowed the State to garnish the personal property of Abernathy, Seay, Shuttlesworth, and Lowery. Each saw their automobiles seized and sold.  The Marengo County Sheriff also sold 300 acres of land owned by the Rev. Abernathy and his extended family since Reconstruction.

The New York Times won its appeal to redress the State cases in the federal courts. Montgomery County Senior Circuit Judge Walter B. Jones heard the original five cases. A racial cyborg, Jones pronounced from the bench that the Fourteenth Amendment was irrelevant in Alabama and that the Sullivantrial would be conducted “in the belief and knowledge that the white man’s justice . . . brought over to this country by the Anglo-Saxon Race . . . will give the parties at the Bar of this Court, regardless of race or color, equal justice under law.” Four years after it all began, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgments against the defendants.

As we pray for the repose of Rev. Joseph Echols Lowery, we should remember part of his prayer at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration; “We ask you [Lord] to help us work for that day when Black will not be asked to get back . . . and when white will embrace what is right.”

 

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