Hawkins discusses black women on death row
By biconews On 29 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Christine McCluskey

Steven Hawkins, the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a lawyer who has represented many death row inmates, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, visited Bryn Mawr last week to give a talk called “Black Women on Death Row: Sisters on the Inside Looking Out.”

The talk was part of Bryn Mawr’s observance of Black History Month, and was sponsored by the departments of Sociology and Feminist and Gender Studies, the Africana Studies Program, and Sisterhood.

Hawkins said that the unique situation of black women sentenced to death, which is different from the situations of white women and black men, are not often addressed by the judicial system or by the media in this country.

Before speaking of the problems of black women on death row today, Hawkins explained the history of slavery and prejudice that has caused the current population in prisons and on death row to include a disproportionate number of blacks. Pennsylvania, and specifically Philadelphia, he said, has one of the biggest disparities between the racial makeup of its prison population and its free citizens - three out of the four women on this states death row are black, for example. Such organizations as Amnesty International have tried to bring this to the public’s attention, he said.

Hawkins gave graphic examples of lynchings of black men and women over the past two hundred years in this country and other instances of extreme racism that resulted in deaths. Because blacks are discriminated against and because they often come from more disadvantaged situations, Hawkins said, they still do not have the same privileges whites do in the justice system.

Black women on death row today face the problems unique to women in addition to the problems unique to blacks, Hawkins said. Women on death row are separated from men there, and so in the states where there is only one woman on death row, that woman does not come in contact with any other human beings. “We’re talking about someone who lives in complete isolation,” he emphasized.

He told the stories of several of the black women on death row now, including a woman who is mentally ill, a woman who killed her husband in self-defense, and a woman was not as involved in a drug crime as her boyfriend but was still sentenced to death while he was not (a common theme in the cases of black women on death row is entanglement with men who then get “a better deal,” Hawkins said).

Haverford professor of religion Tracey Hucks said she required the students in her Seminar in the Religious History of African American Women class to come to this talk. “I thought it was important for students who are learning about black women in religion to understand that that’s not separate from the condition of black women in society - the two are inseparable,” she said.

Nicolette Russell (HC ’02), who is one of Hucks’ students, said she was “struck by the numbers in terms of who’s on death row,” referring to the fact that 3 of the 4 women on death row in Pennsylvania are black. “It’s just not something you’d expect.”

Kayan Clarke (BMC ’02) organized Hawkins’ visit to Bryn Mawr. She worked with Hawkins last summer at the National Coalition in Abolish the Death Penalty in Washington, DC, and she said that her experiences there learning about the situation of black women in the justice system made her decide to bring Hawkins to Bryn Mawr this month to speak about it.

“I really thought it important for women at Bryn Mawr to know of these things - I thought they’d be interested in knowing about a community, a group of people, very different from our own here at Bryn Mawr, but yet so close to us in Philadelphia,” she said.

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