Excerpted From: Daniel LaChance, The Death Penalty in Black and White: Execution Coverage in Two Southern Newspapers, 1877-1936, 48 Law and Social Inquiry 999 (August, 2023) (11 Footnotes/References) (Full Document)


DanielLaChanceIn the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, whites in the American South worked to rebuild the regime of white supremacy that the Civil War had upended. They enacted laws that disfranchised and segregated African Americans. They created a criminal justice system that re-enslaved many in convict leasing programs and state-run penal farms. And they illegally lynched and legally executed--sometimes in front of audiences of thousands--Black people.

The relationship between legal executions and white supremacy was not as straightforward as we might expect, however. Materially, the connection was clear. Nearly 75 percent of all those executed in the former Confederate states from 1877 to 1936 were Black men, a reflection of whites' low regard for the value of Black lives. And yet the white supremacy driving the use of the death penalty in the South was not always seamlessly conveyed in newspaper reporting about executions. Through a comprehensive analysis of sixty years of execution coverage in the Atlanta Constitution and the New Orleans Picayune (after 1914, the New Orleans Times-Picayune), I show how the legal and religious rituals performed during executions--and their representation by journalists to the wider public--would sometimes reinforce an image of African Americans as legally, spiritually, and politically similar to their white counterparts. The opportunity to make a final statement gave the condemned an opportunity to be heard, to object, to tell their side of the story--indicators of their status as rights-bearing members of the political community that was punishing them. Religious sermons given by ministers and hymns sung by execution audiences, meanwhile, underwrote a vision of the condemned as candidates for heaven. Journalists of these two leading newspapers of the “New South” sometimes depicted Black defendants as members of communities that would mourn their loss and bearers of rights that the state was bound to respect.

Over time, as white supremacy moved from a paternalistic to a radical, violent form and the social and political status of African Americans in Southern society deteriorated, newspaper coverage of Black men's executions shrank. As radical white supremacy took hold in the 1890s, and the rate at which whites lynched Black men soared, the median length of articles describing the legal executions of Black men plummeted 75 percent, from sixteen paragraphs to four. In brief articles, journalists announced their executions in clinical, subdued tones. The men put to death by the state increasingly appeared as neither sympathetic souls nor bloodthirsty beasts, but as ciphers, nonentities that the state was dispatching with little fanfare. When applied to African Americans, capital punishment increasingly seemed like a dry, technical procedure.

No such change occurred in coverage of white men's executions in the Constitution and the (Times-)Picayune. Throughout the sixty years following the end of Reconstruction, coverage of their deaths was comparatively robust. Editors and journalists paid more attention to their executions, covering them more often and at greater length. Perhaps most notably, reporters sometimes depicted the white men who died at the hands of the state as tragic heroes who faced their deaths with admirable courage and dignity. The racial differences in execution coverage became even more pronounced over time. When the median execution story for Black defendants plummeted to four paragraphs in the mid-1890s, it spiked to seventy-seven for white defendants (Figure 1). As evidence of Black men's political and social ties disappeared from execution coverage, reports of white men's executions continued to quote their voices directly and note the names of the family members and friends they were leaving behind, reminders that these men belonged to political, religious, and social communities.

In what follows, I argue that execution coverage of Black and white men during this sixty-year period played an important and underrecognized role in what historian Grace Elizabeth Hale (1998) has called the late nineteenth and early twentieth century national project of “making whiteness.” Executions in the South disproportionately killed Black men. But execution coverage in two of the South's leading newspapers lavished attention on white men who met their fate with courage and dignity. As coverage of Black men's executions shrank in length and thinned in substance, the death penalty became a punishment that respected and reinforced the “whiteness” of the men whose lives it took.

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Studying the relationship between capital punishment and lynching in the South, historian Seth Kotch has argued that the two were “complementary forms of social control” and “mimetic methods of racial subjugation that [Southerners] at the time saw as in conversation with one another” (2019b, 18). Lynchings and executions, he writes, “expressed the essential violence at the core of a white supremacist social and political system” and reinforced white social solidarity (2019a, 202). Over time, the two forms of lethal punishment seemed to merge. When executions became private events held inside buildings, elites excluded Black community members from them. As white men gathered to kill Black men without Black witnesses present, executions looked more like lynchings. This may be why, by the 1940s, those writing about vigilante violence in the South observed that the promise of an execution could placate would-be lynch mob members (Ames 1942; Myrdal 1944). Jesse Daniel Ames wrote in a report that “in more than one prevented lynching a bargain was entered into between officers and would-be lynchers before the trial began in which the death penalty was promised as the price of the mob's dispersal” (1942, 12, quoted in Faber 2021, 47-48). In such cases, lynchings were not so much prevented as they were legalized.

Kotch's focus on the similarities between lynching and capital punishment powerfully explains how the death penalty became a functional surrogate for lynching in an era of modernization. But as executions became private and journalists' capacity to shape the image of an execution grew, the face of capital punishment changed in important corners of the popular imagination in ways that distinguished it from lynching. Most obviously, the condemned seemed whiter than they actually were. Imagine, for a moment, a daily reader of the Constitution from 1897, when radical white supremacy began its decade-long peak in the South, to 1936, when the last public execution in the United States occurred. During this time, the newspaper reported on the executions of 302 men in Georgia, sixty-one white (20.2 percent) and 241 Black (79.8 percent). But nearly half (45.8 percent) of all the paragraphs reporters wrote in their coverage of these 302 executions would be about the small minority of white men the state put to death. In most of the articles this reader encounters about those white men's executions, she “hears” their voices and is reminded of their family. She sees images of the faces of one out of every six of them. In contrast, she rarely hears the voices of condemned Black men and is almost never reminded that they are leaving family behind. She will see just three of their 241 faces.

In the image of capital punishment that these newspapers created for readers like this one, an execution was a terrible, awe-inspiring display of the state's power. It justly punished men who had committed heinous crimes. But in stark contrast to the lynch mob, the state often seemed to take the lives of white men. And when it claimed their lives, it seemed to affirm the value of an inviolable “personhood”--spiritual, legal, political--that lay within them. And rather than ritualistically demonizing and degrading the Black men it put to death, as the mobs who carried out public lynchings did, the state seemed to treat condemned Black men with a kind of technocratic indifference. In newspaper coverage of their executions, condemned Black men increasingly appeared as faceless, interchangeable public safety hazards the state was neutralizing with little fanfare.

By attending only to the material effects of executions and treating them as a functional equivalent of lynching, we overlook the process whereby capital punishment became constructed as an anti-lynching in important corners of the Southern cultural imagination. As newspapers and other widely circulating media like novels and films broadcast a Kantian vision of legal executions, it would become easier for those who wanted to project a modern image of the South to distance capital punishment from lynching, a form of violence that was becoming a source of embarrassment for respectable white Southerners. Executions in the South were so often legal lynchings. Yet in images of white men nobly meeting their deaths, journalists made respect for law and human dignity compatible with the practice of legally strangling and electrocuting human beings to death.

Daniel LaChance, Winship Distinguished Research Professor in History (2020-2023) at Emory University, United States. Email: dlachance @emory.edu.