Malcolm X, one of the most effective critics white America has ever known, who decried “straight-jacketed thinking, and straight-jacketed societies,” believed: “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. He 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.
Undoubtedly there are other notable causes today, too, that Malcolm X would throw his full support behind. But these are beyond the scope of this essay which focuses on criminal “justice” reform, and more specifically, Joe Biden’s lie about the death penalty. Just one of these other causes would be the ongoing efforts to “posthumously pardon”/“exonerate” Black Jamaican leader Marcus Garvey — a righteous cause I’ve written about elsewhere (and which is the subject of a new resolution introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives). A Washington Post article a few years ago about the shockingly still unrealized hope Biden will pardon Marcus Garvey observed that Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius W. Garvey, said about Biden: “I think he owes something of his presidency to African Americans. It is time for this to be righted with someone whose only crime was to help his people.”
But the not unrelated point I want to impress upon you today is: If Malcolm X were still alive, he would point out that when Biden was sparring with Kamala Harris to be the Democratic candidate for president, Biden trumpeted his brief tenure as a public defender. (An insightful article in Buzzfeed reported, “Joe Biden’s Time as a public defender was a brief line on his résumé, now it’s a virtue signal for his campaign.”). Surely — if he were still here in the flesh agitating — Malcolm X would go on to say, if anything, these last two years have shown us that, as president, not unlike in his ancient legal career, Biden has been a “Pretender Public Defender.”
And if he were still here — I am sure of it — Malcolm X would make the case much more eloquently than I have, that: “Biden’s death penalty lie has consequences.” Malcolm X would stress 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 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 let me again stress that 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,” Malcolm proclaimed.)
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!”).
Malcolm X would challenge everyone to get on board with criminal justice reform—with abolishing the death penalty and doing anything possible to ameliorate mass incarceration being at the top of his list. 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.” Surely Malcolm X would call out Biden’s tightwad wielding of his expansive constitutional power to reduce the federal prison population, and other meagre-to-almost barren efforts to improve the quality of justice in our nation’s criminal courts. He would say we must demand an end to the insidious institutional racism that keeps so many of our brothers and sisters, disproportionately Black and brown-skinned, languishing behind bars — unfairly, unproductively, disconsolately, for far, far too long.
Just as I’ve insisted before I’m sure Malcolm X would, too, if he were still alive today: the history of the death penalty in America is hewn from the hell of slavery, subjugation, and the suffering of Black and brown 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.
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 through copious published opinion pieces around the country.
Many of my pieces call out President Biden’s slippery, self-professed, anti-death penalty stance (a sampling includes: “President Joe Biden is failing at abolishing the death penalty,” the aforementioned “President Biden’s death penalty liehas consequences,” and “President Biden’s silence on the death penalty speaks volumes”). 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.
As we trudge through the second half of Biden’s middling-to-terrible presidency (and yes, I know, Trump’s will go down as much worse), won’t you please join me? Insist President Biden make efforts to reform the system. As he promised. Thanks.
This column first appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser.