From “Uncle Tom” to Willie Pye: Abolishing the Racist Legacy of the Death Penalty

Georgia’s death chamber.

Georgia is poised to execute Mr. Willie Pye, a Black man, on March 20th, the very same day that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal work Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form, to global acclaim, in 1852. Many are likely unaware of this date’s historical significance, but as someone who grew up not far from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT, it is an alignment that strikes me as significant. This certainly unintended synchronicity highlights yet again the unmistakable link between slavery and the death penalty, and the fitting use of the same word – abolition – to apply to the movements to end both of these menacing institutions. 

It is well-known that the death penalty in its historical context is demonstrably a “descendant of slavery, lynching and segregation.” Likewise, it is well-established that racial bias against defendants of color has a strong effect on who is ultimately capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and executed. Whereas Willie Pye was indeed convicted of a capital crime, the only “crime” committed by the appropriately controversial character of Uncle Tom–based in part on the Rev. Josiah Henson–was that he was born African-American and, therefore, a slave in antebellum America. Still, racism, a legacy of lynching, and the system of mass incarceration–which Michelle Alexander poignantly coined as “The New Jim Crow” – form a historical arc that connects America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery to its persistent death chambers, thereby linking the lethal plights of the literary figure of Uncle Tom with the very real Mr. Pye.

Willie Pye.

Statistics in Georgia and in Mr. Pye’s case present glaring examples of this long arm of historical injustice. As Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has revealed, Spalding County, where Mr Pye was tried and convicted in the mid-1990s, has sought the death penalty disproportionately against Black defendants. Additionally, Mr. Pye’s trial attorney Johnny B. Mostiler was not only wildly ineffective but had a long and well-documented history of anti-Black racism. In his grossly inadequate defense of Mr. Pye, he failed to assemble a team that should have included a mitigation specialist with the expertise required to conduct a thorough investigation into his client’s deeply traumatic childhood and the pervasive racism in the community in which he was raised. The jury notably did not hear that Mr. Pye was reared in an environment of severe poverty, neglect, and abuse. Neither did they see the vast evidence of the violence and chaos in his household, including the fact that Child and Family Services was called into his home often, but never saw fit to remove young Willie to a safer place. Rather, the jury only heard a single fleeting reference to the fact that his family was poor. 

These glaring omissions contributed to the verdict of death that Georgia’s law allowed the jury to hand down to Mr. Pye. The insidiousness of this racist system of laws becomes clearer when one considers that the same state that failed to rescue young Willie from his broken home as a child welcomes his legal killing as an adult. Such a fundamentally flawed legal framework calls to mind the South’s antiquated antebellum laws that allowed slave owners like Simon Legree to command their overseers to put property the likes of Uncle Tom to death without a fair trial, a fate that has been shared by countless African-Americans.

Just as racism has found this insidious way to allow for state-sanctioned murder in the form of executions, so, too, does its scourge inspire countless souls to oppose it. As the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” – a group of nearly 3,300 individuals worldwide – I am among those in whom a fire has been lit to work to eradicate this cancerous blight on the Peach State, and across the globe. On Sept. 21st, 2011, it was none other than Georgia that infamously put to death another African-American, Troy Davis, an innocent man whose case captured the hearts of so many individuals, including this cantor, who was a younger Jewish prison chaplain at the time.  Not until well after that fateful day did I discover that lethal injection–Georgia’s preferred killing method for Troy Davis, Willie Pye and others it condemns to death – perpetuates the demonic mark of yet another notorious, racist regime that directly targeted my own people. Let there be no doubt: lethal injection is a direct Nazi legacy. It was first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of its infamous Aktion T4 protocol used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” That protocol was developed by Dr. Carl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolf Hitler. This unconscionable Nazi imprimatur, as well as that of the “novel” gassing executions now being proposed and carried out across the nation –  including via Zyklon B, as used in Auschwitz – has made it a non-starter for the Black and Jewish communities to stand united in the sacred cause of abolishing capital punishment. 

To offset these macabre historical arcs and ongoing cycles of violence that this March 20th unwittingly brings full circle, one is reminded of the famous quote of renowned death penalty abolitionist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.  “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King proffered, “but it bends towards justice.” King was echoing the words of 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who like Harriet Beecher Stowe was an avowed slavery abolitionist. They were ultimately successful in their mission, of course, a fact that should inspire all those engaged in this latest iteration of the abolitionist cause. In order to be on the correct arc of history, Georgians should sign the growing petition to spare the life of Mr. Pye, and join the cause of death penalty abolition, relinquishing the racist and Nazi legacy of the death penalty once and for all. 

When Abraham Lincoln encountered Harriet Beecher Stowe, he famously called her “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Perhaps with the efforts of today’s generation of abolitionists, the United States can take the necessary step of finally erasing the death penalty’s remaining lethal footprint from that awful conflagration that defined an age, and whose central issue–racism–still casts its deadly shadow across America in 2024.