For Christmas my stepmother gave me a copy of a biography of Thurgood Marshall that has just been released. Written by Juan Williams, the book details the life of the civil rights crusader from his youth in Baltimore and at the all-black Lincoln University to his time at the NAACP and on the Supreme Court.
Throughout his life Marshall had been concerned first and foremost with issues of race to the point of being criticized for being able to consider nothing else. Indeed, when he was going through confirmation hearings in the Senate, Marshall’s reputation was questioned as being limited to only civil rights by none other than Strom Thurmond, then only a boyish 65 years old.
Marshall was in the end confirmed overwhelmingly due in no small part to the efforts of President Lyndon Johnson who successfully persuaded many legislators who opposed Marshall to abstain instead of voting against him. On the Court, Marshall was indeed known primarily for his interest in civil rights, but that was not the limit of his interests. Justice Marshall became one of the Court’s staunchest opponents of the death penalty. Originally in favor of it, Marshall began to oppose it after seeing its implementation first hand as a criminal defense lawyer.
The death penalty was once an issue that was hotly debated and had vehement supporters on both sides. No longer. The question is basically moot at this point. There are no truly mainstream politicians anymore who oppose the death penalty and no rising candidates foolish enough to. Opposing state-sponsored execution has become the equivalent of being soft on crime and no candidate is going to risk appearing as that.
The fact that the death penalty is practiced in almost every state save this one is disturbing but not nearly as disturbing as the lack of debate on the subject. Gone are private citizens protesting the brutality and the irreversibility of this punishment. No longer does an execution, let alone the fact that about a month ago Texas had three in one week, make the headlines. We have become either desensitized or disinterested to the point that nobody talks about it since nobody’s listening.
Have the American public decided on an answer to the question of the death penalty or have they just stopped responding? Tough to say. Without a mainstream articulate opposition it is difficult to know. As for now we are in a vicious circle. The lack of public interest makes it hard to support an opposition while at the same time the lack of opposition creates problems in generating public interest. One begets the other. It’s a scary situation. One that probably has Thurgood rolling over in his grave.