Mansell was a Black teenager accused of rape in Asheville in 1925 whose trial was threatened by a lynch mob calling for his execution. Despite evidence of his innocence, Mansell was convicted and sentenced to death.
After many people expressed outrage over the sentence, the governor granted Mansell a reduced sentence of five years in a prison labor camp. He was later exonerated.
According to Kotch's research for the film, the death penalty served as what the Black press at the time called "legal lynchings."
The film also highlighted how the racist legacy of the death penalty influences the practice to this day.
According to the CDPL, people of color make up 60 percent of people on North Carolina's death row despite being less than 30 percent of the state’s population.
Furthermore, defendants are twice as likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person as they are for killing a person of color, and nearly half of the people on death row were sentenced in a courthouse with a Confederate monument.
James E. Williams, Jr. is a retired Orange County chief public defender and racial equity coordinator for CDPL. Williams, who also sits on the N.C. Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, said the death sentence is a key component of a carceral system rooted in white supremacy.
The prison population has exponentially increased from the height of the War on Drugs in the 1980s — which Williams said was designed to target Black and Brown communities.
Between 1972 and 2009, the number of people in jails or prisons grew by almost 700 percent, according to a report by nonprofit The Sentencing Project.
“The death penalty makes palatable or makes acceptable or normalizes some of the most extreme and racially biased aspects of the system,” Williams said.
CDPL has been able to help exonerate innocent people from death row and pushed litigation that stopped all executions in North Carolina since 2006.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.
“Our mission is to ensure that no one is executed in North Carolina and to end the death penalty,” Collins said.
Another way the organization seeks change is by raising awareness in the public through art like "Racist Roots" and "Poisoned Fruit."
“I use art as a tool for education,” Courmon said.
Courmon, who is also the community engagement coordinator for NCCADP, said that an essential step in abolishing the death penalty is spreading the word about the movement. Many other states outside of the South have already eliminated the death sentence.
“If Virginia can do it, so can we,” he said.
135 people remain on North Carolina’s death row, but Collins said the coalition’s activism is starting to pay off.
“I think it’s starting to change,” Collins said. “I think public opinion is really changing.”
Racist Roots is currently available only through facilitated screenings. Follow this link to request a showing in your community.
@DTHCityState | email@example.com | firstname.lastname@example.org