PA Death Penalty Moratorium: A History of Direct Action

Governor Tom Wolf (D-PA) recently issued a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania.  This is a significant win for the anti-death penalty movement, which has been fighting an up-hill struggle since the 1970s. In 1972, in the case of “Furman v. Georgia”, capital punishment was struck down temporarily, resulting in a de facto moratorium on capital punishment nationwide.  The US Supreme Court ruled on the requirement for a certain degree of consistency when sentencing the death penalty, and ordered states to update their procedures of issuing the death penalty so as to decrease the numbers of persons executed, as well as providing certain legal procedures to ensure a more just and fair trial for the defendant.  This moratorium lasted until the “Gregg v. Georgia” case in 1976, when the Supreme Court once again accepted the rights of states to issue the death penalty.  Due to the new federal procedures, only 5 prisoners were executed between 1976 and 1982.  During this short period of time, activists relied less on legal disputes and more on methods of direct action and civil disobedience.   By the mid-1980s, however, the federal government became less entangled and once again gave states more power over the death penalty, leading to a dramatic increase in executions and a decline in activism.

In this article I detailed the major demonstrations in the late-1970s and early 1980s.  I argue that direct action and civil disobedience were some of the most important tools for the movement during this period, after the “Gregg” case revealed the limitations of purely litigation methods.  Activists, realizing the death-penalty may come back stronger than ever, began organizing demonstrations in the streets to fight the decisions made in the courts.  This same point is made in one of the leading historical works on the anti-death penalty movement, “Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994,” by Herbert Haines (1996).  Haines showed how activists took the lead against capital punishment following the “Gregg” decision, allowing them to take the offensive instead of remaining on the defensive.  Haines also showed how civil disobedience and direct action declined by the mid-1980s, which occurred simultaneously with the decline of the movement as a whole.  Haines wrote: “As much as anything, the decline in acts of civil disobedience was due to the acceleration of capital punishment’s pace in the United States.  The abolitionists who had planned and carried out such actions before now found themselves overwhelmed by more immediate tasks, such as locating lawyers to stave off scheduled executions.” (haines, 131)

Haines did not claim direct action was the only answer, but instead showed how important direct action was in gaining wide publicity for the movement, possibly even making it look more powerful than it really was.  Since the mid-1980s, anti-death penalty activists have not had significant numbers to perform demonstrations and have relied on legal measures, but many activists dislike relying on such methods and are waiting to implement street protests when the time is right.  Now that PA has its own moratorium on the death penalty, activists should seriously contemplate the application of direct action in order to take the offensive, and not remain on the defensive until it is too late.

The most powerful anti-death penalty federation that practiced direct action was the Southern Coalition on Jail & Prisons (SCJP), a coalition of prison reform groups from 11 southern states.  The first action taken by SCJP took place on Christmas Eve 1976. Vigils were held in nine different southern states and in the southern cities of Raleigh, Durham, Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro (North Carolina had more prisoners on death row than any other state), Memphis, Atlanta, Dallas, Jackson, Birmingham, New Orleans and many more.  It was the first form of resistance by abolitionists following the “Gregg” case that gained significant media attention.

On January 17, 1977, prisoner Gary Gilmore was executed in Utah, marking the first execution in the post-Gregg era.  Following this was the second major action that gained wide coverage.   Over the Easter weekend in 1977, the SCJP organized the nationwide “Witness Against Executions,” which was largely supported by religious clergy members, with the largest action taking place in Atlanta, Ga.   On April 9, 3,000 persons, marking one of the largest anti-death penalty demonstrations in history, marched on Georgia’s state capitol, a state in which 70 prisoners were currently on death row.  Demonstrators wore signs with the name and state of everyone on death row across the nation, while others carried props consisting of a wooden model of an electric chair and a large wooden cross.

The rally was held on the steps of the state capital building where, ironically, Governor Jimmy Carter declared in his Inaugural that “the time for segregation is over.”  Now people were gathered to oppose Georgia’s capital punishment law, which was signed by President Jimmy Carter.  Speakers at the rally included the mothers of prisoners on death row, an ex-death row Florida inmate who spent 12 years on death row before being proved innocent, Ralph Abernathy of the SCLC, Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and New York Times editor Tom Wicker.  Many felt it was appropriate to demonstrate in Georgia since 366 legally sanctioned executions took place in that state alone – more than any other state since records began being kept in 1930.

On April 5, 1979, activists held a night-long vigil in protest against the scheduled execution of Alabama convict John Louis Evans.  The vigil turned into a celebration when word came that Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist granted Evans a last minute reprieve.  Rehnquist acted on an appeal by Evans’ mother.  Evans, like Garry Gilmore two years earlier in Utah, wanted to die and declined to ask for clemency.  Nevertheless, Evans supported the continued legal action against capital punishment on his behalf.  The event was sponsored by the ACLU, the SCJP, and USA- Amnesty International (AIUSA).  AI began to focus on the death penalty in the 1970s, and by 1977 issued “The Declaration of Stockholm,” which condemned capital punishment. (haines, 63) AI’s involvement broadened the subject of the death penalty from being a domestic issue to that of an international issue.

In 1978, 200 prison inmates rioted in Georgia State Prison, located in Reidsville.  Three black inmates, two white inmates, and a white guard were killed in the riot.  When it was over six black inmates, who were outspoken critics of the prison system, were blamed for the riot.  They became known as the “Reidsville Six.”  In support of the Reidsville Six, a march to the Georgia State Prison, where Georgia’s executions took place, was initiated in the summer of 1979. On August 6, 1979, dozens of black and white activists began their 80-mile trek from Savannah to Reidsville.  The “Coalition for a March on Reidsville” was led by black comedian Dick Gregory, and SCLC member and Georgia House representative Hosea Williams. The objectives of the march were to shut down the maximum-security prison because of alleged inhumane conditions, to clear the charges against the Reidsville Six, and to end the death penalty.  The demonstrators knew days in advance that they were barred from the prison compound by state prison officials and by erected fence guard lines.  They did not expect, however, a court order temporarily barring them from crossing a bridge that was 1,000 yards away from the prison gate.  Judge James E. Findley issued the court order after prison officials warned that prison inmates had become increasingly tense ever since the march began four days earlier.  One prison official was quoted saying, “violence within the facility is a certainty” if the demonstrators were permitted to “approach any building within the prison compound.”

Nearly 200 persons marched through Reidsville until they reached the bridge.  Out of them, 66 persons defied the injunction and walked toward the bridge, resulting in all 66 being arrested.  They were charged with violating the injunction and were freed on their own recognizance.  Only hours after being released from the courthouse, seven demonstrators, including Dick Gregory, tried to cross the bridge again and were rearrested.  In court the judge offered to release Gregory on the condition he stayed out of the county.  But the black comedian, who was known for his biting wit and unshakable morality, stared directly at Judge Findley and refused the offer.  Gregory then announced that he would serve his entire 20-day sentence without eating or drinking.  “I can take your 20 days or 20 years,” Gregory stated.  Findley sentenced Gregory to jail, saying, “You are in jail because you want to be there.”  Gregory fasted for 4 days, but was released on the fifth day, after the judge permitted the demonstrators to legally cross the bridge.  After the injunction was lifted, 200 demonstrators crossed the bridge without incident.  The earlier precautions made by the prison officials of riots being caused by the presence of the demonstrators proved false.  In fact prison officials were embarrassed when inmates visibly cheered on the demonstrators by waving white towels from windows.  A small delegation entered the prison and announced their proposals to end racist violence in the prison, to abolish the death sentence, to pay prisoners for their labor and to shut down the jail.

Another radical southern organization was People Against Execution (PAX), an ad hoc committee formed under the initiative of Tony Dunbar, coordinator for the SCJP from 1974-1976 and later as the southern regional coordinator for AI.  Similar to SCPJ, PAX employed creative direct action and civil disobedience.  Before the execution of John Spenkelink in Florida in May 1979, PAX members and Spenkelink’s mother, Lois, performed a “chain-in” near the home of Governor Bob Graham, and briefly occupied his office.  PAX gained more publicity when they organized the November 23, 1979, demonstration in Washington D.C., called “Florida Day.”

Around 200 demonstrators gathered across the street from the Supreme Court for Florida Day, which focused on the 141 prisoners facing death sentences in Florida at the time, a number proportionally higher than the other 37 states where capital punishment was legal.  At the rally demonstrators honored John Spenkelink, the first Florida prisoner executed against his will in over 12 years.  Directly across the street from the Supreme Court, a person posing as Governor of Florida Robert Graham signed death warrants that led to the symbolic execution of 24 demonstrators, all of them wearing the name of a prisoner in Florida on death row.  One by one the 24 men sat down in a wooden chair and acted out the reactions prisoners might have before they were executed.  One demonstrator representing Florida inmate Anthony Peek cried out: “Not me! Not me!  I was just sitting in my cell.”  “Don’t put your hands on me,” yelled Doug Magee, who portrayed Florida inmate Myron Fleming.  When the hood was put over his face, he yelled: “May God have mercy on your soul.”  Each demonstrator shook in the chair to act out being electrocuted, and afterward a white-robed doctor checked their heartbeats and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd.

When all 24 were declared dead, they were carried across the street and placed on the steps of the Supreme Court, or what the protestors called “the court of last resort.”  The 24 demonstrators employed the “die-in” method and laid-out on the steps.  After five minutes the “dead” bodies were loaded into three paddy wagons, taken to a police precinct and held overnight.  They were charged with unlawful entry under Washington, D.C. law, and parading without a permit under federal law. Bail was set at $500 each, but it didn’t matter because those arrested performed “jail-ins,” meaning they chose “jail over bail.”  The next day they were arraigned before a black judge, who released them in recognizance.  The demonstration was recorded by all the Washington newspapers, as well as all the radio and television stations, which one die-in participant credited to the “novel nature” of the protest.

PAX continued performing civil disobedience into the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t able to revive the actions of the late-1970s.  The last major actions including civil disobedience took place in 1985.  On February 19, reading a statement revealing the racial bias in capital punishment cases at the Georgia House of Representatives, 8 PAX members were arrested.  A month later, 3 PAX members were arrested for trying to prevent an execution.  On May 28, 12 persons were arrested near the Supreme Court in Atlanta, which was part of a larger national action that resulted in 250 arrests. The SCJP also significantly declined in the 1980s.  The SCJP disbanded by 1990, leaving the Texas, Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina affiliates on their own.  The creative actions taken by these groups gained national attention, despite the relatively low amount of participants.  Yet the high costs of bail and the burden of defending individual cases in court, caused organizations to take the path of legal procedures and lobbying.

From the 1980s onward, more and more people were incarcerated and executed.  In 1997, a record-high of 74 executions took place, breaking the previous record in 1955.  In 1998, the 500th execution occurred since the “Gregg” decision in 1976.  Today, we are at a Cross-Road in history.  Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sprouted across the globe in defiance of the growing police-state.  Marijuana activists and Decarcerate forces have recently joined together in street protests to fight the world’s largest prison system, which has grown rapidly alongside the number of prison executions in the past few decades.  U.S. history has constantly been met with generational periods of progressive and regressive policies, and perhaps we are now at the cross-road in history where we can get away from our currently disastrous path toward a prison-state, and onto a more needed path of a people’s-state.


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