On March 24, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill to abolish the death penalty in Virginia. He signed the legislation at the Greensville Correctional Center, which houses the execution chamber used to carry out capital punishment by the Commonwealth of Virginia. This historic legislation makes Virginia the first state in the South to abolish capital punishment.
The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (VICPP) was one of the key organizations that helped to win passage of the bill. Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook, a Baptist minister who serves as VICPP’s justice reform organizer led the faith advocacy campaign. She worked closely with Benjamin Hoyne, VICPP’s policy and campaigns director, who led the successful legislative campaign.
VICPP’s advocacy campaign included five prayer vigils at historic lynching sites across Virginia, clergy and community petition drives, two press conferences (on Zoom) with faith leaders and prosecutors who oppose the death penalty, and statewide and national media outreach.
VICPP also organized a campaign that reached hundreds of Virginians who called and emailed their legislators to advocate for the legislation. VICPP’s partners included Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the 8th Amendment Project, the ACLU of Virginia.
While many faith denominations joined the fight, VICPP says it was led by Black Baptist faith leaders, who spoke passionately about the connection between the death penalty and Virginia’s shameful history of lynching and racism.
“We are grateful to the faith leaders, congregants, and advocates for justice who joined us in the fight to end the death penalty and rid our Commonwealth of this historical injustice,” said Rev. Cook.
“This victory would not have been possible without their voices and support. The faith community absolutely helped push this across the line by making a difference with legislators.”
Rev. Cook said she is especially grateful for the help of five African American pastors who led the faith outreach campaign.
They included Rev. Dr. Keith Jones of Hampton Roads, who heads the Tidewater Baptist Ministers Conference. Jones is the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Norfolk.
“The death penalty is especially important during this time in history as we think about the whole issue of injustice and whether Black lives matter,” said Rev. Jones.
“ If we look at the issue of the death penalty, we have seen that it is a punishment method that is used disproportionately against people of color. One of the ways that Virginians can make a statement that Black lives do indeed matter is to abolish this punishment.”
The four other key faith leaders were Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy, Co-Chairperson of the Social Justice Committee of Henrico Ministers’ Conference and Senior Pastor of Seven Pines Baptist Church in Sandston; Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Harris, President of Baptist Ministers Conference Richmond and Vicinity and Senior Pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Goochland County; Rev. James Page, Co-Chairperson of the Virginia UMC Conference Board of Church and Society and Senior Pastor of Galloway United Methodist Church in Falls Church; and Rev. Dr. Marvin D. Warner, President of the Danville Ministers’ Alliance and Assistant Pastor of North New Hope Baptist Church in Danville.
d. The pastors come from churches across the Commonwealth:
Each pastor used his platform as a religious leader to shepherd those of faith and good will toward meaningful action that has changed the course of Virginia’s legislative history, said Rev. Cook. “Their drive to motivate others stems from personal experience and a mission to speak truth to power.”
When each was asked “why are you personally involved in advocating to abolish the death penalty,” the responses varied.
“It awarded me with an opportunity to directly change the life of individuals who do not have a voice, said Rev. Hardy.
“It is my personal goal to show love and benevolence to strangers without asking anything in return. I am grateful to be a voice that speaks truth to the powers that be with conviction. I earnestly believe that those on death row would never be heard nor would their voice hold any weight.”
Rev. Harris said, “I really see it as my duty to be an advocate. I can’t get too celebratory because the system still has so many broken parts. People are still being held in jails because of bonds they cannot afford to pay off. There are people sitting in prison because of petty marijuana charges, but marijuana legalization is at the cusp of being passed in 2021. I realize many people have been jailed without proper reason. I know right now God wants us to fight for change. There are so many injustices within the system that need to be fixed.”
“Here’s what a young Black person discovers at an early age,” said Rev. Jones. “ In elementary school they realize that there are two realities. One for them and a completely different reality for a person who is of the majority. They recognize it the moment when Sally gets a hug from her teacher and little Dante gets a pat on the shoulder instead of a hug. And it’s that moment that a child recognizes that things are not always equal.
“I went to a segregated school system and they did not integrate until I was in the sixth grade. When they integrated the schools in Norfolk, we only had 3 or 4 white kids. They were automatically made the head of patrol and the student council president. We all knew that our own Black faculty and administration went out of their way to let the little white kids and their parents know they were not going to have a problem.
“They unwittingly told Black kids – although it wasn’t their intent – that white kids were superior. Even in the sixth grade I recognized that was not a right thing to do and those white kids were no smarter or better than the rest of us. I don’t even think I talked to my parents about it. It caused me to recognize that there was an automatic implicit and explicit bias and some of that bias was at the hands of our own people – African American administrators.”
Rev. Warner said it is the mandate of faith leaders to “speak truth to power and that’s what I do in my sermonic moments.”
“ I use that platform to speak against the powers that be because that’s what the profits of old did. Biblical records show that pastors were silenced for speaking the truth. That is even more reason to keep speaking the truth. You must use your platform to empower people and use the power of the church to institute change. Scripture says, “If you fear losing your life, you don’t have a life,” therefore we cannot be afraid. You must stand up and fight without fear of telling the truth.”
Rev. Cook said The Virginia Interfaith Center will continue to advocate for other justice issues moving forward. “We believe in human dignity and we believe in redemption and so we were fighting for justice on many different levels.”
Adapted From An Article By Roberta Oster, VICPP’s Director of Communications, and Francesca Victoria, Communications Assistant