Death penalty must fall as Kansas reckons with violent racial past

May 16, 2022 3:33 am
Justice is represented in a 22-foot marble sculpture at the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Justice is represented by a 22-foot marble sculpture at the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Gretchen Eick is an author, educator and publisher in Wichita.

Kansas has a violent racial history, and the death penalty just might stand as that history’s cruelest expression.

We should end this practice now and try to live up to our sunnier narrative as the “Free State.” The pending death penalty prosecution of Cornell McNeal in Wichita offers an opportunity for us to do just that.

In Kansas, as in other “death belt states,” the death penalty disproportionately targets Black men and is most frequently applied when the victims are white and female. These trends aren’t accidents. Racial bias is part of our history.

Despite Kansas’ “Free State” history, freedom-seeking enslaved people and later freed people fleeing the South’s white supremacist terrorism met violent opposition here.

Instances of racialized terror increased exponentially with the exodus of southern Blacks after the presidential election of 1876 secured the South for white supremacist Democrats. Kansans – both those who had wanted the state to allow slavery and those who had wanted Kansas to be a free-state – feared that newly arriving Black people would steal their jobs, infect them with diseases or increase crime.

Their response? Racial purges. The establishment of “sundown” policies. Racialized terror events – hanging, dismembering, burning, and shooting detained Black men, events that were advertised in newspapers and drew crowds. In the twenty-first century, scholars have identified 54 murders by mob (lynchings), while local authorities looked away.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan carry a flag at a gathering in the 1920s. (KansasMemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

In 1901 the brutal lynching of Fred Alexander entertained a crowd estimated between 8,000-12,000 citizens in Leavenworth. That group included children.

Not until this year did the U.S. Congress make lynching a federal crime.

In the 40 years after the Civil War, Black people constituted 90% of the prison population in Southern states. It wasn’t much different in Kansas, and the Ku Klux Klan found Kansas rich in potential members. By the end of 1922, the Klan had 40,000 Kansas members, 6,000 in Wichita alone.

By 1924, Kansas City became the site for the second annual national “Klonvocation.” The Klan elected 130 officeholders in Kansas City, including as mayor, Don C. McCombs, who stocked his political machine with Klansmen. 

Black Kansans resisted, most famously as named plaintiffs in the historic Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision that struck down segregation and the Dockum Drug Store sit-in, the nation’s first, successful, student-led sit-in.

Racial disparities in the criminal legal system proved more formidable. According to the Sentencing Project: “About 1 in 60 Black residents are locked away, in comparison to 1 in 377 white residents” – making Kansas’ Black incarceration rates the 11th-highest in the nation.   

Kansas’ Black population is only about 6%, but Black people make up 31% of those in the state’s prisons and jails. Black Kansans are also more likely to be killed by the police.

These disparities extend to the state’s administration of the death penalty.

But there’s hope.

Kansas, unlike death penalty states in the South, has been ambivalent about the death penalty. Our last execution took place in 1965. After the US Supreme Court invalidated capital punishment nationwide, Kansas did not join other the states reinstituting it until 1994.

Today Kansas imprisons nine men under sentence of death. Three of those men, exactly one third, are Black.

In recent years. Washington, Connecticut, Delaware, Colorado, and Virginia have abandoned the death penalty, citing race discrimination and arbitrary application as the primary reasons.

Kansas should join them.

Over the last 10 years, Kansas political leaders – from both parties – have called for restrictions or outright abolition of the death penalty. Notably, former governor and senator Sam Brownback surprised many when he raised serious concerns about the penalty.

In 2021, 34 Kansas legislators supported a bipartisan bill to end capital punishment citing exorbitant costs, religious beliefs about the sanctity of life, and social justice reform.

We can’t change our past, but we can learn from it and eliminate the death penalty before taking the life of another person.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Gretchen Eick
Gretchen Eick

After 14 years as a foreign and military policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Gretchen Eick earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and became a professor of history at Friends University. Awarded two Fulbright Scholar awards (to Latvia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and a Fulbright Hays travel grant to South Africa, she is the author of seven books, two scholarly histories, four novels and a book of short stories. Her book on the civil rights movement, "Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-1972" (University of Illinois Press, 2001/2007) won three awards, resulted in two museum exhibits, and in 2009 a Telly-winning documentary film about the first successful student-led sit-in, the 1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-in in Wichita. Eick’s 2020 book, "They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story" (University of Nevada Press) is a history of U.S. policy toward Indigenous Americans and a double biography of the Dakota physician/writer/activist Charles Ohiyesa Eastman and his Anglo wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, also a writer and activist. The Eastmans spent their lives working to reform Indian policy. From 2017 to 2020 she taught half a year in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, living the other half in Wichita, Kansas, where she and her husband, Mike Poage, run an independent press, Blue Cedar Press, publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.