A powerful apology to civil rights icon John Lewis from a Southern police chief, and the likely death penalty repeal in Maryland show progress is possible. (More)


john lewis kevin murphy apology

Stories about the chief of police in Montgomery, Alabama apologizing for his department’s failure to protect civil rights workers in the 1960s and about Maryland getting close to becoming the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty show that progress is possible.

Montgomery Alabama Police Chief Apologizes to Civil Rights Icon John Lewis

Earlier this month, our nation commemorated the Civil Rights Movement by focusing on the 48th anniversary of a seminal moment in that movement – the attempted march by about 600 civil rights advocates from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to advocate for voting rights for African Americans. On March 7, 1965, a day referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” the advocates were met by a violent onslaught, led by local and state police, that resulted in the hospitalization of at least 17 people, including now Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). The violence by police, which was televised nationwide, helped shift public opinion throughout the nation in favor of civil rights and played an important role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But Bloody Sunday was far from the first incident of significant violence against civil rights workers that was either in part caused by or failed to be stopped by local or state police. For example, in 1961 Freedom Riders, including John Lewis, who were attempting to desegregate travel in the South, were violently attacked by a mob when they arrived at the Greyhound station in Montgomery. The local police had declined to provide the Freedom Riders with a police escort and did not step in to protect the civil rights advocates.

This year’s commemoration of these and other major events in the Civil Rights Movement was especially meaningful for an important reason – for the first time since the Civil Rights Movement, a police chief in the South apologized to John Lewis for the police’s failure to protect civil rights workers. The apology was presented by Kevin Murphy, the chief of the Montgomery, Alabama police department, who also gave Rep. Lewis his badge. At a time when it is easy to despair about attacks on voting rights coming from the Republican Party and from Supreme Court Justice Antonin “Racial Entitlements” Scalia, it is valuable to remember, as Mr. Murphy’s powerful apology shows, that we really can achieve and defend societal progress when we work towards a better, more inclusive society.

Maryland About to Abolish the Death Penalty?

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the spirit of forgiveness and redemption shown by the story above is the death penalty. As we’ve explained previously, the death penalty is barbaric, ineffective at preventing crime, more costly than life in prison without parole, and racially and economically biased. As such, we’ve been gladdened to see five states – Connecticut, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico – abolish the death penalty in the past six years (though two of those states – Connecticut and New Mexico – did so only retroactively).

The good news is that it appears likely that Maryland is about to become the sixth state to do so since 2007. At the urging of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and former death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first death row inmate in US history to be exonerated through DNA evidence, the state Senate passed legislation last week abolishing the death penalty. Last Friday, the state House Judiciary Committee approved the legislation 14 to 8. A vote in the full House is expected soon, though opponents of repealing the death penalty are planning to propose a series of amendments in the House starting on Wednesday in an effort to weaken or sidetrack the legislation. While the legislation would not apply to the five people currently on death row in Maryland, the hope is that Gov. O’Malley will use his authority to commute those sentences to life in prison without parole.

If you are a Marylander who wants to help get death penalty abolition over the finish line, please give your member of the House of Delegates a call and urge them to vote to end the death penalty in your state.