Black Pastors Help Win the Fight to Abolish the Death Penalty in Virginia

“This monumental victory to abolish the death penalty in Virginia is a significant step in acknowledging the racist legacy of capital punishment as we seek to collectively heal the deep wounds of racism.
– Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy

On March 24, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill to abolish the death penalty in Virginia. The bill signing ceremony was held 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 the 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.

The VICPP 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 is grateful to those advocates and to our partners including Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the 8th Amendment Project, the ACLU of Virginia.

Although many faith denominations joined the fight, 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. Rev. Cook said, “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. 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.”

The Virginia Interfaith Center is especially grateful for the help of the five Black pastors who led the faith outreach campaign. We have asked those pastors and Rev. LaKeisha Cook a few questions about their work on this campaign, the connection between their faith and activism, and the historical legacy and lessons as Virginia moves forward.  The pastors come from churches across the Commonwealth:

Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook is the Justice Reform Organizer for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and the former campus pastor at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond

Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy is Co-Chairperson of the Social Justice Committee of Henrico Ministers’ Conference and Senior Pastor of Seven Pines Baptist Church in Sandston

Rev. Dr. Emanuel Harris is President of Baptist Ministers Conference Richmond and Vicinity and Senior Pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Goochland County

Rev. Dr. Keith Jones is President of the Tidewater Metro Baptist Ministers’ Conference and Senior Pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Norfolk

Rev. James Page is Co-Chairperson of the Virginia UMC Conference Board of Church and Society and Senior Pastor of Galloway United Methodist Church in Falls Church

Rev. Dr. Marvin D. Warner is President of the Danville Ministers’ Alliance and Assistant Pastor of North New Hope Baptist Church in Danville

Why is the abolition issue so critical for Virginia, especially at this time in history?

Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook: Coming off the federal execution spree of the previous administration, this is a pivotal time for Virginia to become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty.  Against the backdrop of last summer’s protests and rallying cries for racial justice, this historical moment is an important step in the Commonwealth’s journey toward acknowledgment of its racist past.  Virginia will hopefully provide an example for other states in the South to move forward with repealing the failed public policy of capital punishment.

Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy: The abolition of the death penalty in Virginia is crucial to correcting an egregious act of torture and mistreatment of prisoners. These state-sanctioned executions sealed the fate of the innocent as well as the over penalized. Clearly, this act of torture impacted one race of people more than any other. This will end the hegemony of legislative malfeasance that has lived in the fabric of the Commonwealth of Virginia for many years. It is an affirmation of a new culture of leaders emerging that will no longer take things at face value. It is a statement showing that we will no longer tolerate cruel and unusual punishment as the statuesque.

Rev. Dr. Emanuel Harris: The death penalty is another example of racial inequity that has been perpetuated in the American justice system. It’s obvious in the last election that there are two separate justice systems where some lives are important than others. It’s grossly unequal. It wasn’t until 1997 that a white person was sentenced to death for killing a black person in the Commonwealth. This further proves the notion of how unequal this form of punishment is.

Rev. Dr. Keith Jones: 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. 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.

Rev. James Page: Black people are often pulled over by police for no reason and they are losing their lives. They are losing their lives because officers are demanding things they do not have the authority to demand. In Virginia, you have the right to carry a weapon, but for a person of color that right does not necessarily hold true. This is evident in the deaths caused by police officers when a victim who was usually black or another minority, was armed. If certain police officers see a gun on a person of color, they shoot before asking questions, but what if that person was trying to defend themselves from the officer? If the officer is killed, the person is sent to death row. Because of the laws and the system, you set people of color up for failure and this failure results in death. So now we have a chance to look at the issue and see what the problem was. The laws need to be the same for everyone equally. The death penalty was targeting people of color more than whites.

Rev. Dr. Marvin D. Warner: It is very important especially for historical reasons. Virginia was one of the main southern states where lynching was so prevalent, and we are still seeing a rise in hate crimes and disproportional injustice within our whole system. So, anytime the system reverses its stance on historical and outdated practices, it’s a good thing.

All the pastors are fighting against the death penalty and the larger problem of system racism that plague our nation and the world.

What is the connection between lynching and racism and the death penalty in Virginia?

Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy: The connection between lynching and racism relates back to people in power passing laws that align with their racist and prejudiced beliefs. These laws remained active and continued to be a constant fixture that was woven into the fabric of Virginia policy. These nefarious policies are put in place as an affront to their underlying behavior of white supremacy.

Rev. Dr. Emanuel Harris: Lynching was used to punish Black people for killing white men and women, but it was usually the slave masters’ way of controlling them. Lynching appears to have translated into the modern-day death penalty to be used when we step out of line. Black people are four times more likely to be convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty for killing a white person. The system is being perpetuated. The death penalty was a new form of lynching.

Rev. Dr. Keith Jones: In Virginia, lynchings were done by uncontrolled mobs and the only reason the death penalty came about was to legalize what vigilantes had been doing for years, anyway. It brings home the reality that there are two justice systems.

Rev. James Page: Lynching was a form of putting Blacks in their place if they said something to someone white. A man who merely frightened a 12-year-old girl was lynched. So, all the state did was take out lynching and turn it into the death penalty. In history, the death penalty was executed by hanging which is just like lynching but disguised as a form of law. The courts basically said it is legal to kill now. It was a legal way of killing Blacks again because statistics showed that whites who did the same crime as a Black person did not receive the death penalty. It’s the old south way of life – that’s what Blacks had to deal with.

Rev. Dr. Marvin D. Warner: Historically we know that the rise of lynching came immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation, reconstruction, and the early rise in the turn of the century in the 1900s. We saw the escalation of lynching, especially when formerly enslaved people became empowered within their communities and businesses. That empowerment and success became a threat to the established order and those in power saw lynching as a deterrent. Mob rule took over and even the government became complicit when they instituted the death penalty rather than abolishing lynching. They came up with capital punishment crimes that were disproportionally imposed on people of color. So, they legalized it rather than allowing mob rule.

There was a lot of silence until the murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor brought these issues to the forefront. But it’s still going on. That’s the ugly underbelly of the United States. We need truth and reconciliation to be put on the table and talked about rather than sweeping it under the rug.

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. Their drive to motivate others stems from personal experience and a mission to speak truth to power.

Why are you personally involved in advocating to abolish the death penalty?

Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook:  Growing up, I had dreams of becoming a doctor. I wanted to save lives; I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my life. After my first biology class in college, I quickly realized that working in medicine wasn’t for me and I began studying Religion and Sociology.  I felt called to work for the church in full-time ministry for over twenty years  My work within the church always centered around social justice and fighting for those who are often silenced or overlooked. Last year, I felt the pull again to broaden my focus and began to fight for lives through capital punishment abolition work at Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. I didn’t become a medical doctor, but this work of saving lives is equally important.

Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy: It awarded me with an opportunity to directly change the life of individuals who do not have a voice. 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. Dr. Emanuel Harris: 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.

Rev. Dr. Keith Jones: Here’s what a young Black person discovers at an early age. 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 the school 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 the 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. Dr. Marvin D. Warner: From a faith perspective, I see the humanity in everybody regardless of where they live or come from. Luke 4:18 says “I came to set the captives free,” and that is what Jesus did. He was a revolutionary. He wasn’t just a passive person. He was using his voice to overthrow the oppressors which were religious leaders in Rome at the time. It’s our mandate 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.

These men of faith have worked in church and with the public and the media to pass this historical legislation. Their work is directly tied to Virginia becoming the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty.

What advocacy actions did you participate in?

Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy: I worked with Rev. Dr, LaKeisha Cook by participating in press conferences, prayer vigils, prayer meetings, and other measures of support.

Rev. Dr. Emanuel Harris: We have groups we work with that support abolishing the death penalty. We also worked with the Virginia Interfaith Center to get data surrounding the death penalty. I am also part of the Henrico Minister’s Alliance, The Baptist Ministers, Black Coalition of Change who have all testified in favor of the bill. The church’s responsibility is to spread the Gospel with teaching, healing, and action. We must be about making life better for everyone. Showing love and compassion for everyone. We must be in the moment where we listen to everyone’s voice.

Rev. Dr. Keith Jones: Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook is the right person to talk to preachers and the public about this issue. She has a deep understanding of faith, race, and historical issues. Bringing in Rev. Cook as a key voice on this issue was a stroke of genius. The reality is that Governor Northam had to make certain that his legacy would be different than the mistakes he made in the past with the blackface scandal. All those things combined impacted what has happened. It didn’t hurt that Trump was such a bad President that people voted in droves for the Democratic party. Scripture uses the phrase, “In the fullness of time,” which represents when things fall into place which, in our case, was the advocacy work that we had done previously.

Rev. James Page: The prayer vigil at a lynching site in Alexandria was a moving experience. It was a 60-person event that we were fortunate to be able to hold outside the Roberts Memorial Methodist Church. Kimberly Young, the leader of the event, did a great job organizing the event and including the historical precedents. The experience of seeing people and witnessing how they reacted to a prayer vigil at a lynching site was the most moving part of the ceremony. We are working on another vigil service for the Asian community in response to the targeted attacks that have been going on recently. We are also working on resolving some of the tensions between African Americans and Korean Americans.

Rev. Marvin D. Warner: The prayer vigils were a wonderful experience. We proved that when you bring light into a dark situation you will have positive outcomes. Even though we didn’t have a huge number of people at the event, we had a great deal of media at the vigil. There was so much buzz across the state that we made it into TIME magazine. We can truthfully say we did that.

I want to give credit to Governor Northam’s actions after he was seen with blackface. He did a full 180 turn and began visiting Black communities and churches to correct the situation. The Governor’s hurtful actions with his scandal were turned into something good.

There is a common theme of charity and following God’s intention of loving one another in each of their reasonings when approaching the subject of social justice.

How does your faith inform your work for social justice?

Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy: My faith informs me to speak for those who have no voice which can be proved in Proverbs 3:18. It further allows me to offer compassion and hope to those who are without. I believe this work for social justice has bid me to go another mile. It further allows me to be kind to a person that has fallen and to help them get to a place of restoration.

Rev. Dr. Emanuel Harris: My faith drives my social justice work. Isaiah 1:17 says to “Fight for the oppressed, learn to do good, and seek justice…” Issues like an unfair distribution of the vaccine or the school-to-prison pipeline are informed by our faith. Our faith requires me to be involved to liberate the oppressed.

Rev. Dr. Keith Jones: Scripture says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon you…heal the brokenhearted and set the prisoners free…” I don’t know how anybody can see the Gospel in any way other than a call to liberate people who are oppressed.

Rev. James Page: My scriptures that I live by can be found in the Book of Matthew, “…When I was hungry you fed me and when I was sick you looked after me…” My job is to see if I can help and resolve the issue in any way I can. If you’re a pastor that sees someone in pain and you do nothing, then why are you even a pastor? Pastoring is more than preaching on Sunday. It’s to be God’s hands and feet in the world to show people that God is alive, He is love, and He is there to help. For people who have lost all hope, I am the only person they may see doing anything to bring that hope back to them. Lending a helping hand or a listening ear is what being an advocate for the down, the lost, and the lonely should all be about.

Regardless of the hurt and suffering that many Black Americans have endured, there is still hope that coming together through faith and courage will ignite powerful change.

How can faith communities of all traditions come together to support this work?

Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy: Faith communities can come together and support this work by agreeing there is a problem and understand that without ecumenical support, there will be no change.  Secondly, faith communities must be willing to speak outwardly and openly to all injustices in their local congregations as if they were speaking in the community setting. Lastly, faith communities must hold elected officials openly accountable when they make hurtful mistakes or stand on the wrong side of justice.

Rev. Dr. Emanuel Harris: I just say just do it. We need to come together to make the phone calls, network and collaborate. It’s poetic to say that we all have a voice. We have to listen and not speak for someone else.

Rev. Dr. Marvin D. Warner: Don’t give up. Reach out to others but remember to have respect for them. All faiths have their own take on salvation, and you must respect one another’s beliefs about that. It’s all about respect. We are serving all of humanity and it is our duty to make things better than we found.

Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook: The Virginia Interfaith Center will continue to advocate for other justice issues moving forward. Keep up with our policy news on our website. We believe in human dignity and we believe in redemption and so we were fighting for justice on many different levels. The Commonwealth of Virginia has executed more people than any other state (1,389 since 1608). There is no evidence that capital punishment results in a decrease in criminal activity.  The death penalty discriminates against people with low income and people of color. It violates the ban against cruel and unusual punishment established within the US Constitution. Our hope is that Virginia will now lead the way for every state in the nation to abolish this cruel and unfair punishment.

Op ed by four pastors in the Virginian-Pilot

Time Magazine story quoting Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook

Baptist News story

TV news story

Fact sheet

Article by: Roberta Oster, VICPP’s Director of Communications and Francesca Victoria, Communications Assistant