Opinion: Reconciling Oregon’s lynching history calls for abolishing death penalty

Alonzo Tucker

On June 19, Oregonians gathered in Coos Bay to remember Alonzo Tucker, Oregon’s only documented African American victim of lynching. A historical marker now stands outside the Coos History Museum to memorialize Tucker, who was lynched in Coos Bay in 1902 in front of a crowd of 300, and the thousands of other African Americans who were lynched in this country. At the unveiling ceremony, more than 600 people paid witness to this act of justice and meaningfully added a new chapter to Tucker’s story.

This was the start of reconciliation. Now we must move to repair. We must examine the legacy of lynching and the fundamental question of who our society believes deserves death because the answer continues to be disproportionately people who are African American.

At the same time lynchings in the United States were going down, state-sanctioned executions were going up. As the Equal Justice Initiative has documented, racial disparities in prosecutions, jury selection, and issuance of death sentences reveal the link between lynching and the death penalty. Between 1910-1950, African Americans made up 22% of the South’s population but 75% of all those who were executed. Today, African Americans make up 13% of the population, but 41% of those who are on death row. In 2014, a study out of the University of Washington looked at jurors in Washington and found that jurors were three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a Black defendant than for a white defendant accused of similar crimes. Lynching never ended, it simply evolved. The color of your skin still plays a crucial role in whether our society believes you deserve death or not.

We are too busy asking ourselves the question, “Does this person deserve to die for their crimes?” that we haven’t first asked ourselves the question, “Do we deserve to kill?” Because if the answer is “no,” then it doesn’t matter what the answer is to that second question.
Today’s moral outrage over lynching is hypocritical. We condemn the institution of lynching, while failing to condemn its legacy.

The Oregon Supreme Court recently overturned the death sentence of an inmate due to the 2019 passage of Senate Bill 1013, which limited the scope of offenses eligible for the death penalty. It’s likely that the remaining 23 death sentences will similarly be overturned. While the ruling and SB 1013 make the death penalty nearly nonexistent in Oregon, there must still remain urgency for a full repeal.

Oregon voters are the only ones with the power to ultimately end the death penalty in Oregon, by voting to remove it from our state constitution. While in many ways, it will be a symbolic vote, symbolism matters and reflects the type of society we want to be. It was symbolic when Oregon repealed its Black exclusionary laws in 1926 given their general lack of enforcement; it was symbolic when Oregon ratified the 15th Amendment in 1959, since it was added to the U.S. Constitution several decades earlier; and it was symbolic when Oregon re-ratified the 14th Amendment in 1973, for the same reason. These actions mattered to history, and it matters to the memory of Alonzo Tucker that we still have the heir to lynching’s legacy, the death penalty.

Tucker was lynched in Coos Bay while much of Oregon openly expressed their sympathies for the lynch mob. It’s on all of Oregon to repair the legacy of this injustice. Reconciliation requires more than remembrance.




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