On Monday the nation will pause, perhaps too briefly, to remember and pay tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., arguably the leading U.S. (and global) civil and human rights activist who was the voice of reason and conscience during the onset and growth of the modern civil rights struggle in this country between 1955 and 1968.
As America reflects on King’s life, oratory and inspirational vision of what this country could, should and is still struggling to become, I would urge us all to remember another anniversary commemorated on the same day. On Jan. 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore, a convicted felon on death row in Utah, was executed by a Utah firing squad and thus became the first condemned inmate to be put to death in this country in 10 years — a mere six months after the U.S. Supreme Court, on July 2, 1976, upheld the legality of the death penalty in the case of Gregg vs. Georgia.
Gilmore’s execution was significant because it ended a de facto nationwide moratorium on the death penalty that had been in place for almost a decade. He was the only inmate executed in America in 1977 or 1978.
The increase in national executions was initially slow: two in 1979, zero in 1980, one in 1981, two in 1982, and five in 1983. The nation carried out 21 executions in 1984, and has been in double digits every year since, including 11 last year.
To date, beginning with Gilmore’s execution, there have been 1,540 executions, and eight more are scheduled before the end of June 2022; many new and serious execution dates are expected to be set in the weeks and months ahead.
The struggle for civil rights forced America to come to grips with its brutally racist past and unfair treatment of people of color, especially, but not exclusively, in the South. King repeatedly spoke in soaring rhetoric, urging and demanding America to fulfill its promise of human dignity and human rights for all people, regardless of their skin color.