Lynching Remixed: The Execution of Troy Davis

19 Sep

On Wednesday, the state of Georgia will execute Troy Davis for the 1989 murder of police office Mark MacPhail. Since Davis was convicted in 1991, 7 of the prosecution’s 9 witnesses have recanted their statements, and have repeatedly given testimony to courts and to the media that their testimony was coerced. Additional witnesses have come forward implicating Sylvester “Redd” Coles, another person at the scene for the murder. Not only did Coles brag to others about the crime, but he was the first to finger Troy Davis for the murder. Three of the original jurors have also come forward with signed affidavits which indicate that they would not have voted for Troy Davis’ guilt had they known then what they know now. Finally, there is no physical evidence of any sort linking Davis to the crime. 

We cannot understand the killing Davis outside of a long history of lynching Black men (and women and children) for crimes that they didn’t commit and often, when no crimes were even alleged. Lynchings were frequently committed just for sport, while white families brought their children along and hosted picnics as happy spectators.  These days conservative (white) Americans fancy themselves more civilized than their bloodthirsty ancestors, but I submit that the state sanctioned murder of Black men based on dubious, trumped up, and coerced evidence is just lynching remixed for a new generation. Lest we forget, the state (i.e. police officers and sheriffs deputies who were present at many lynchings) frequently sanctioned mob killings as well. This go around, the willfully naive can self-sooth with narratives of “justice being served.” Let me be clear. Mark MacPhail’s family deserves justice. But no one deserves justice at the expense of a potentially innocent man.

Let me offer one contrasting difference in approaches to the death penalty. In June 2011, Daryl Dedmon, Jr, a 19 year old white Mississippi teen, along with two truckloads of his friends, drove from his hometown of Brandon, MS into Jackson to “go fuck with some niggers.” After locating James Craig Anderson, a plant worker leaving work at 4 in the morning, the teens assaulted him, yelled racial epithets like “white power” at him, and then left him to stagger back to his truck. Dedmon, however, couldn’t leave bad enough alone, and looped back, savagely running over and killing James Anderson. He then called his friends and bragged about it. The national fervor this summer over The Help, a racially romanticized narrative of Jackson, MS, overshadowed James Anderson’s murder, a tragic modern day Jackson, MS tale that would have forced us to confront the racial realities of Black folk in this 2nd decade of the 20th century.

The supreme irony, however, is that last week  James Anderson’s family sent a letter to the Hinds County district attorney asking them not to seek the death penalty in Dedmon’s case:

“Our opposition to the death penalty is deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James’ life as well,” the letter states. …”We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites,” the letter states. “Executing James’ killers will not help to balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment.” (source:

(Black folks are the most forgiving people I know. #Jesuswalks)

In their courageous act of petitioning the state to not avenge the killing of their beloved family member by taking another life, the Anderson family powerfully demonstrates the ways historically and currently that the death penalty has been/is used to punish Black men, ostensibly for being a threat to white women, men, and children. In addition to their moral conviction against the death penalty, they have a political conviction against it, namely that if it is not applied fairly, then it shouldn’t be applied at all. Even if, by chance, you morally believe in the death penalty, you can still be politically opposed to its use. Their self-sacrificial act, in the face of overwhelming evidence of Daryl Dedmon’s guilt, should challenge us all to think more critically about the death penalty, about racism, about policing, about state coercion and violence–in short, about what we really mean when we say “justice.” 

For the state of Georgia to proceed with the killing of Troy Davis in the name of justice when so much reasonable doubt exists is for them to thumb their noses at the very concept.

Today, the State Board of Paroles and Pardons will hear Davis’ attorneys plea for a grant of clemency. Last week over 600,000 petition signatures were delivered to the board in support of Troy Davis. 

To Troy, we send out this effort of love and energy to you in the spirit of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Pauli Murray, Mary Church Terrell, W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and all those ancestors and freedom fighters who have fought fearlessly for justice, past and present. 

If you want to call and express your support, or sign the petition, see info below.

To get involved, contact:
Gov. Deal of Georgia: 404-656-1776
State Board of Pardons and Paroles:  404-656-5651

Sign Sign’s online petition.

Sign Amnesty International’s petition.

29 Responses to “Lynching Remixed: The Execution of Troy Davis”

  1. Blair Ebony Smith September 19, 2011 at 6:48 AM #

    we can’t give up the fight but i wouldn’t consider it a lost if we don’t win this fight. maybe the divine will decide to sacrifice his body for another soul. we sure do need to fight but also understand we cant control the uncontrollable.

  2. Koritha Mitchell September 19, 2011 at 9:43 AM #

    Thank you for this post. I especially appreciate your highlighting the silence around the racist murder of James Anderson while so much attention went to that gift-wrapped historical amnesia called *The Help.* Thank you too for underscoring the statement that Anderson’s family is making about the racist ways in which the death penalty has been and continues to be used. Even in their grief, they remain clear-headed about the truth of this country’s practices. A real model for us all. I am glad that the Troy Davis situation continues to demand attention and remain optimistic that this can make a difference. Unfortunately, even if we do stop this unjust state-sanctioned murder, it will be a small consolation, given all that he and his family have lost already. Still, thank you for raising your voice and spreading the word about the petitions that allow others to do the same. On it.

  3. Nikesha September 19, 2011 at 1:16 PM #

    If Davis is executed and he is innocent he will be another Black man lost to the system that is built to work against him. If Davis is executed despite the more than reasonable doubt now evident in the 22-year-old case he will be another example of a Black man caught up in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong crowd. Davis’s execution is no longer about seeking justice for the murder of Officer Mark McPhail; it is the reaction of a blood-thirsty mob looking for someone to pay for a wrong even if the person on the hook is not the one that committed the wrong.

    Troy Davis’s case highlights a sad reality in non-post-racial America circa 2011: Killing a Black man, be he guilty or innocent, is as easy as all those nameless men and women lynched for two centuries, assassinated in the 60′s, and found victims of fatal police brutality in the 80′s, 90′s, 00′s and unfortunately on.

  4. ashoncrawley September 19, 2011 at 3:55 PM #

    just. yes.

  5. Rachel Kantstopdaphunk September 19, 2011 at 6:55 PM #

    thank you for this post.

  6. s mandisa September 20, 2011 at 7:57 AM #

    Just found out that Georgia Board refused to grant him clemency……….. I have too many feelings to put into words. This is what I have:

    I hate that people have to be lessons to other people and die for us to wake up and see that this country was not made for us. Im sad that Troy has to die for some of us to seriously side-eye the country many of us call home. But Im enraged that soooo many of us STILL believe that what is happening to Troy Davis and his family is the exception and NOT the rule-the rule being red/black/brown/yellow bodies are not valued and are easily disposable by the state. Troy Davis is a point on a continuum of the rule……………

  7. divynenhealthy September 20, 2011 at 3:15 PM #

    This entire situation disheartens me and reminds me how far we have seemingly come and how far we have to go. The more things change the more they stay the same. I do believe that much of the country has become complacent and too tired to react. There has been an outpouring of support for this case but it appears this may not be enough. Our generation must draw on the strengths of those whose shoulders we stand. My heart aches for this man and his family. All I can think about is how easy this young man could have been any male in my family. When will we wake up and re-ACT??!!

  8. kevin September 20, 2011 at 4:04 PM #

    You do realize that 7 of the 12 jurors that found him guilty in the original trial were black right? And 90 % of the GA board of pardons (which just denied clemency to Troy Davis) was African American as well right? Write about the lack of evidence or the witnesses going back on their statements. It’s easy to just play the race card, but do some research before blaming race. Black people give ourselves a bad name by automatically blaming race so often.

    • crunktastic September 20, 2011 at 5:39 PM #

      You assume that the presence of Black people means that race wasn’t at play. Three of the jurors have said that they would vote differently if they’d had access to the evidence. So the question is not about whether the race of the jury affected the verdict. It’s about all the ways race plays out from the beginning to the end of the process. It’s about the fact that reasonable doubt clearly exists here and that reasonable doubt is the standard for a not guilty verdict in our criminal justice system, except when the accused is a Black person.

      And for the record, the board that made this decision is composed of five people: 2 white men, 1 white woman and 2 black men.

  9. Z. Hall September 24, 2011 at 6:15 PM #

    Absolutely, the “justice” system, from beginning to end, failed Troy Davis as it has failed so many other poor and Black defendants. Judge Mathis eloquently and bravely summed up this travesty. You can YouTube the video.

    Troy’s execution was a sad day for humanity and an embarrassment for the American “justice” system and the State of Georgia.

    • ramsey41 September 24, 2011 at 11:42 PM #

      This post makes me sad. I too saw the rather scandalous news headlines like “Georgia set to execute an innocent man” and my sense of injustice was immediately piqued. Enough so that I went and actually bothered doing research about the case–not just what Amnesty International or what most major news sites were reporting, but simply what facts could compel more than 12 different courts to find him guilty every time.

      Without commentary, these are some pertinent facts.

      1. There were not 9 witnesses for the state. There were in fact 34. Of those 7 who “recanted” only two changed important parts of their testimony. Of these two witnesses, Davis’ attorneys would not call either to the stand in his post-trial evidentiary hearing–even after being warned that not calling them to the stand would severely weaken their credibility. Also, both witnesses were outside of this courtroom the entire time. The court speculated that the witnesses were not called to the stand because their testimonies would not have held up under cross examination.

      2. All of the 34 witnesses for the state were black– including three Air Force members who clearly saw the shooting and picked Davis out of a line up immediately.

      3. The shell casings found at the crime scene matched those of a shooting earlier in the day in which Davis was also convicted of.

      I’m not denying racial prejudice within our judicial system, or racial disparities in conviction rates–but I think if people looked past the sensational and saw the facts–they would see a much different story in Troy’s specific case.

      Dear Crunk Collective. Do some research next time please.

      • crunktastic September 25, 2011 at 10:41 AM #

        At least 3 jurors who heard the original evidence found the testimony of those who recanted so compelling as to sign affidavits attesting that they would have in fact had reasonable doubt if they had known this new evidence. Since they have had the most information about this case, having been at the original trial and seen the changes, I find their impressions to be useful.

        If the testimony of the Air Force witnesses was so strong, then there would have been no need to coerce false testimony from the 7 who recanted. Furthermore, Davis was at the scene, so it is not inconceivable that he would have been picked out of a line up. But was Coles placed in a line up? Particularly since he was the one having the altercation with the homeless man that Mark MacPhail stepped in to help?

        No one said that the witnesses who testified did so out of racial bias, particularly since the other potential suspect, Sylvester “Red” Coles is also black. Either way, a Black man would have been convicted.

        Whereas Troy Davis said to his dying breath that he didn’t have a gun, Sylvester Red Coles admitted to having a gun of the same type that used in the shooting, but said that he “gave it to someone else earlier that day.” Makes no sense to me.

        So what this adds up to for me is not an unequivocal claim for Davis’ innocence (which I never asserted), but a solid assertion of reasonable doubt which in our justice system demands a “not guilty” verdict.

        What is perhaps more of an issue here is that your post is rife with assumptions about the research which undergirds this post and about the ways in which we approach arguments about racism. You should perhaps interrogate what your rush to faulty assumptions means about your own social attitudes. But whatever you decide is of no consequence to me.

        You have stated your position and I have stated mine. We will not agree, and I’m wholly uninterested in trying to convince you of the validity of what I think. Have that conversation on another blog where folks want to argue. From my perspective an egregious injury has been committed here, and that is work of social justice and healing to which I will commit my energies around this issue–not to unproductive conversations with the likes of you. This is my first and last response.

  10. Jason Tompkins September 26, 2011 at 2:38 PM #

    I imagine that many here won’t like this, but it needs to be said. In the words of Yasmin Nair:

    “Yes, Black death row inmates are far more likely to be executed than white inmates. But this piece transforms an empirical fact into an essentialism, in a simplistic tale of good Black prisoners and evil white prisoners. What if Anderson’s family were not as forgiving? What if MacPhail’s family were anguished by a death penalty beyond their control? Why give a fuck either way? The death penalty is wrong, and the PIC needs to end. Period. Let’s end our sentimental and affective responses and get to work…

    “The problem with the PIC is not that it puts good and innocent people in jail for endless periods or to put them to death; the problem is that it incarcerates people, period. Keep churning out these affective stories about Black prisoners on death row and the millions who love them and we WILL keep seeing more people killed. “

    • crunktastic September 26, 2011 at 4:54 PM #

      While I can mostly agree with the attempt u make at a larger systematic critique, I’m scratching my head at the fact that u missed my larger critique of the system vis a vis it’s relationship to lynching. I also take issue with the assertion that analyses which include a human element are themselves responsible for the continued execution of prisoners.

      • Jason Tompkins September 27, 2011 at 9:58 AM #

        I didn’t miss any critique, it’s the title of this article. Everyone is aware of what lynching culture in this country has meant for African Americans. What bothers me is that the dots aren’t being connected. It’s not just about the death penalty, It’s not just about abolishing prisons. It’s about abolishing the world in which prisons are considered essential. Labor, conservation, documentation, gender bias, displacement of families, state-level lobbying landscapes… it all plays a role.

        It goes faaaaaar beyond signing an Amnesty International petition. It requires re-imaging what “corrections” even means, what a sustainable, effective, peace-seeking response to violent offenses are. That is where the *real* work is.

        And yes, even with the best of intentions, ALL of us are responsible. The activists that appealed for Troy Davis under the rationale of “reasonable doubt” failed in their strategy. That is what happened. The authorities don’t care; we already knew that. The lesson from all of this is that we need a pre-emptive and vast strategy that doesn’t cherry pick media-friendly icons, but uproots the rationale for prisons as a whole.

      • crunktastic September 27, 2011 at 10:46 AM #

        I agree with the critique of prison culture, but I don’t agree with the placing of blame. The piece was meant to spotlight what was happening to Troy Davis in that moment, and he had a right to that psychic and rhetorical space, and I make no apologies for giving it to him. That said, I appreciate the larger issues that you raise here, and think they are spot on in multiple respects. When I have more time, I will visit the links you’ve provided, as they are relevant to my larger scholarly work as well. Thanks for reading.


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