Monday, January 17, 2011

What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Do?

In preparation for today’s post, contemplation over what to write in honor of Martin Luther King Day was difficult.  Should we rail against racism? Or, should we attempt to take a more thoughtful approach, one meant to inspire, engage, and provoke dialogue?  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the capacity to move people, to lead them. He shared his purpose, his dream, with others and inspired them to pursue it too.  We may not match his eloquence, but we can look at his example of leadership.  If he was here now to face the mass incarceration of African Americans, what would Martin Luther King, Jr. do?


“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

We have been visiting with prisoners inside prison walls for almost two months now. None of us at 6and 44 had ever done this before. We are not lawyers or priests. We don’t have family members there. What we had was a need to speak directly with African American men who are affected by this injustice.

On your first visit to a prison, you’re nervous.  You worry about your safety.  News reports, movies, and weekly TV crime dramas have painted a gruesome picture of the monsters housed within those walls. Once inside, what will protect you?  

You proceed through the scanner, past the guards, into a series of concrete vestibules contained by heavy metal doors, out into the yard, past the tower and into a narrow walkway controlled by tall metal fences topped with concertina wire.  The entire experience and architecture is arranged to ensure that anyone passing through remembers who is in control. And on your first visit, it heightens the anxiety you feel right before you meet the men.

What you find inside, however, is forgiveness, redemption, and hope, and these are all distinctly HUMAN qualities. 

Love and compassion come when you realize how many of the men are there with Life Without Parole for a series of misguided, youthful decisions.  Decisions that had they only lived in a different neighborhood, gone to a better school, or had parents who could afford an attorney, would have resulted in different, milder consequences.  

One man told us that as a juvenile he was never counseled on the consequences of his actions. He was told that if he just signed this paper he could go home. What 13 year old doesn’t want to just go home? He had no idea that every time he signed that paper he was racking up points, ensuring that as an adult, if he committed just one small felony, he would be locked away for life.

Some of the men have committed heinous crimes, and we have no illusions that certain individuals should remain behind bars. But they are still human, and should be treated with human dignity. No soul deserves to be simply thrown away like yesterday’s garbage.


“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Remember that what is illegal, and its resultant consequences, are determined by the State.  Most people would like to think that we would not let anything like the Holocaust happen here in the United States. But Hitler was able to decimate the Jewish population because the majority of German citizens remained complicit.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The War on Drugs and Three Strikes laws are failed social policies that have had devastating consequences on the black community.  The U.S. now imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during the height of apartheid, and what are we doing about it? What are YOU doing about it? Are you calling your legislators and letting them know that the current rates of African American incarceration are unacceptable?  Are you even registered to vote?  Washington State has changed its laws so that ex-offenders can regain their rights to vote as soon as they are no longer under Department of Corrections’ supervision. Are you exercising that power?


“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Too often we know instinctually that something is wrong and do not speak out. Fear and uncertainty hold us back. The poet and artist William Blake called this “mind-forg’d manacles." Though oddly apropos to our discussion of mass incarceration, what he meant was that when we accept the social order as “reality,” as something that cannot be changed, then we are complicit in our own enslavement. If you do not honor that voice in your head that says, “Something should be done about this,” and instead say, “I’m just one person, what can I do,” you are complicit in the problem.

The problem of racial disparities in the criminal justice system is so enormous that no one person can do it alone. However, if you hold a vision in your mind of how things could be different, it means that change is possible.

“Our longing for a more virtuous world is a sign that a better world is possible.” Robert E. Quinn, Building the Bridge as You Walk On It

You may not know how to get there, but if you can see the endgame, THE DREAM, and start challenging the status quo, the path will open up before you.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

To end the mass incarceration of African Americans, change needs to occur on every level of society.

If your friends and family are not aware of this problem, you need to make them aware. If you haven’t told them, what's holding you back?

If someone in your family is addicted to drugs and goes in and out of prison, you need to listen to the voice in your head that says to intervene.

If you are a teacher and you see a teenager at risk, don’t give up on him. There is a voice in your head that knows what will befall him without an education. Do something to engage him. Find him a positive mentor.

If you are acting up and getting in trouble, why do you insist on making our job so much harder?  Why would you choose self destruction and what could you choose that would be better?

If you are an academic, work hard to share your data with the world.

If you are a police officer, lawyer, juror, or judge ask yourself at the end of the day whether or not you administered justice equitably. Did the color of a person’s skin, his neighborhood, his education, who his parents are, or how much money he had influence where you went today and the judgments you made?

You get the idea. In your own mind, you know what needs to change at your level. Do it!

To end, we will share a quote from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

“If we continue to tell ourselves the popular myths about racial progress or, worse yet, if we say to ourselves that the problem of mass incarceration is just too big, too daunting for us to do anything about and that we should instead direct our energies to battles that might be more easily won, history will judge us harshly. A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch.”

What will you do today in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to address this issue? And then tomorrow? And the next day?

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