Good morning all, before I begin with my remarks today, I need to recognize someone, a person that I made a vow to always amplify them on MLK Day. I promised myself that this day I would always say the name of Dustin Higgs, a Black man murdered by the federal government two years ago today. A Black man who killed no one, yet the state thirsted to see him dead. Today, as I did last year, and I will always do, I speak the name Dustin Higgs into this space.
I want to thank Rod Chapel for inviting me to speak today and thank you all for attending. For those that know me, they know I do not seek or relish the spotlight; I don’t much like public speaking, but I accept it as I am tasked with standing in the gap for those who should be here speaking but cannot be, those who have been unjustly and inhumanely silenced by an unjust and inhumane carceral system. Many of those I speak for are caged behind razor wire fences and cement block walls for crimes they did not commit. Like Lamar Johnson, who now can see the light at the end of his over 27-year long dark tunnel, like Maurice Davis, president of the JCCC branch of the NAACP, who has fought for himself over twenty years to be able to stand at the entrance of the tunnel leading to his delayed justice and freedom, and like Leonard “Raheem” Taylor, president of the Potosi branch of the NAACP, who continues to hold to his faith, hope, and dignity in spite of this state’s lusting to murder him in just over twenty days.
Several months ago while contemplating how I would inspire community members to give their attention and compassion to the atrocity that is the death penalty – and specifically how I would get people to come out for Kevin Johnson – I came up with a phrase, one that simultaneously gives me hope and fills me with discontent. I felt so strongly about the phrase that I put it on a shirt and vowed to amplify this call in my community as well as nationally as I am able to: Show up for Black Life… I have been wracking my brain to grasp why this is not the immediate accompaniment with the phrase “Black Lives Matter”. Following the line of reasoning tells me that if Black lives actually matter to us, then we would show up for them in moments of urgency as well as in moments where a soft touch, warm embrace, or encouraging words would make a difference. And when I say Show up for Black Life, I do not solely mean for my particular work with the death penalty, but in every aspect of our existence where Black Life is under threat, experiencing suffering, and struggling under the weight of colonialism, imperialism, hegemony, and global white domination… From health disparities, lack of adequate education, the failure of the social system to help vulnerable demographics, the carceral apparatus that steals, traumatizes, and kills, and so much more. Our communities knowing and caring about where the lack is, and uniting to support & sustain ourselves; showing up for Black life in any and every way necessary.
Those are the thoughts of Showing up for Black Life that give me hope as I know it’s possible, and once we determine to do so, we can create better communities. Such places where Dr. King would have been proud of us for honoring the amazing legacy that he left. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King is among those I hold in great reverence he showed up for Black life every single day despite the threats levied against him. Eventually the enemies of justice, freedom, and self determination of the Black masses decided that
he had shown up too much and had begun to expand his sphere of influence, so they determined to take him from us – violently – since they could not brainwash us to denigrate him with their usual subterfuge and lies.
Conversely, the aspect of Showing up for Black life that fills me with dismay first showed itself to me at Kevin Johnson’s memorial service. Kevin was an amazing young man who committed a terrible act as a traumatized and grieving 19 year old. This state would not relent in getting the ultimate vengeance against Kevin and executed him on November 29th, 2022. As I looked around the sanctuary and took in several hundred face – some of which had been asked to show up the week before to stand with us in unity and defiance of the state’s thirst to murder him and had responded with reasons like they had to work since it was a weekday, or was otherwise busy – yet the following Wednesday as Kevin lay in his coffin, I acknowledged that these same people felt that taking in Black death was adequate reason to be show up. In that moment I realized a few things: one, that we value, prioritize, and find more importance in Black death than what we do in Black life; which brings me back to the mantra “Black Lives Matter”. The organization that was created around that phrase indeed does most of its actions and performs most of its outrage surrounding Black death. So, Black lives mattering does not easily flow into “Show up for Black Life” as logic tells me, at least not for the vast majority of our people. That realization has been very disheartening yet makes me more determined to change that practice. I have used and will continue to use people like Raheem Taylor to serve as a living embodiment of how showing up for Black life is necessary, memorable, and change making.
Raheem Taylor is scheduled to be executed on February 7, 2023. Despite being an innocent person condemned to die at the hands of the state, Raheem has used his time in prison to support, mentor, and advise those around him. Similar to the radical love that Dr. King embodied, when we talk about what radical love means today, Raheem embodies selfless support, presence, and love for men around him that society has deemed to be not worthy of humanity. Despite his own court ordered fate, Raheem Taylor has shown up for Black Life and for all life, as a member and president of the Potosi prison chapter of the NAACP. If Raheem can show up for Black life inside of the confines of a penal institution, despite his personal circumstances and create bonds, gain respect, and admiration; I am sure the rest of us can do similar out here.
Dr. King once said “Make your way to death row and speak with the tragic victims of criminality. As they prepare to make their pathetic walk to the electric chair, their hopeless cry is that society will not forgive. Capital punishment is society's final assertion that it will not forgive.” This statement is a good transition to delve into the actions of our governing bodies.
In the last several years and months, we have been continually shown that society – at least the leaders elected by the member of society – will not forgive or impart the mercy that is supposed to define a ‘civilized’ society. Within two years, the governor of Missouri – a man who wears his faith on his sleeve and trots it out whenever is politically expedient – has ordered the state murders of a person with severe intellectual disabilities and two people who had suffered unimaginable childhood abuse and failed by the institutions of society that are tasked with protecting vulnerable children. Expanding to the federal government, just a month ago the United States – under the leadership and direction of a president who campaigned upon the promise to end the death penalty – voted no on a United Nations resolution for a Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty. This decision of President Biden was a huge blow to those who work in the space of death penalty abolition. To be transparent, yes, President Biden did put in place a moratorium on federal executions once he took office, however those of us in this work who are completely informed, know that despite this moratorium on executions, federal death penalty prosecutions and trials continue unabated. This only serves to fill up the federal death row house in Terre Haute Indiana so that the next president who believes in the death penalty will have more choices to embark on their own federal killing spree; which is eerily reminiscent to what Trump was able to do within the year of the end of his term, after the Obama moratorium and continued death penalty trials filled up death row. As Dr. King prophetically stated, The Governor of Missouri and the President of the United States continue to assert that our nation, our ‘civilized’ society, will not forgive.
To conclude, I invite everyone here to show up for Black life on January 31st to the joint MADP & NAACP advocacy day at the capitol. The following week, on February 7th, this state is poised to murder Raheem Taylor, a Black man with a very credible claim to innocence. We need you to show up and urge our elected legislators to get on the path to abolishing the inhumane, expensive, and further traumatizing atrocity that is capital punishment, or as I call it, state sanction murder, or as what it truly is, a regurgitation of historic racial terror lynchings. Thank you for allowing me to speak today and I will end with a plea, the theme of this all: Will you show up for Black Life? On January 31st, February 7th, and every other moment of urgency and need? Just as the Honorable Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King dedicated his entire life to, up to the moment that he suffered his own form of state murder.
Michelle Smith, 1/16/23