Content warning: This article contains mention of racially-motivated violence and sexual violence.
The nonprofit law firm Center for Death Penalty Litigation screened their film "Racist Roots" on Aug. 18 at the Chelsea Theater.
"Racist Roots" explores the origins of the modern death penalty, its use by English colonizers, its role as a tool of intimidation against African slaves and its institutionalization during the Jim Crow era.
For the event, CDPL partnered with members of a local coalition of civil rights organizations, including the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition and the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The film was followed by a spoken-word poetry performance by artist Nick Courmon, titled "Poisoned Fruit," and a panel with Emancipate NC Attorney and Executive Director Dawn Blagrove and Seth Kotch, an associate professor of American studies at UNC.
Kristin Collins, the director of public information at CDPL, highlighted the historical connections between lynching and the death penalty, specifically referring to the story of Alvin Mansell.
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.
“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.
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