Calvin Burnett (American, 1921 – 2007)
Sheet : 29 3/4 x 20 in. (75.57 x 50.8 cm)
Credit Line
Hope College Collection
Object Number

Many studies have shown that since the end of the Civil War, African Americans—and African American men in particular—have consistently been punished by the criminal justice system with greater frequency and severity than other racial and ethnic groups. For example, of the 455 people who were executed in the United States for the crime of rape between 1930 and 1967, 405 of them were Black.  The inherent unfairness of the criminal justice system was a major concern of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 60s, and is reflected in this highly stylized, Cubist-influenced image of an electric chair created by the African American artist Calvin Burnett in 1956. Burnett was inspired to create this image not only by the deaths of many African American prisoners, but also by the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. The Rosenbergs were American citizens who were convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union after World War II. They were the only Americans executed for espionage during the Cold War period, and many critics at the time and later believed that anti-Jewish bias played a role in their death sentences. Burnett’s reference to the deaths of the Rosenbergs in this print emphasizes the point that injustice is injustice, regardless of skin color.

Object Type