The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has been in operation for 34 years – and it all started with a local woman, Mary Alice Rankin, who served as its cofounder and first coordinator.

She was a young widow and mother who got involved with social issues through the Alliance to End Repression, despite her sterling Republican and conservative credentials. When the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty with its Gregg v. Georgia opinion in 1976, Mary Alice responded to a call from the American Civil Liberties Union to form a coalition to oppose its Illinois rebirth. That effort failed and 13 men went to the execution chamber, countered by now with 20 exonerations. Mary Alice served in the worst of times when a vast majority of Americans favored the death penalty, and death row filled up with hundreds of convicted. She also started visitation to death row and worked hard and often in delivering her speech to church groups, social clubs, media and the like over her lifetime commitment to abolition. She died in 1990.

On Tuesday night, June 15, the coalition will honor her memory by dedicating its benefit at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn (with Jon Langford’s bands) to her memory. We forget how hard it was in those days to be an abolitionist. Today, the coalition has bills in both houses and great support from many legislators. Mary Alice would be glad to hear that.

Patrick McAnany
Oak Park

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