Bill Moyers Journal
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. This week, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL observes the anniversary of King's murder by examining America in light of his dream. What would he think of our country today and where would he focus his fight against inequality and injustice?
Two talented lawyers who've dedicated their careers to fighting inequality, Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, join Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL to examine justice and injustice in America 42 years after King's death.
Alexander believes that King would be deeply troubled by the remaining inequality in America. As she tells Bill Moyers, "I think Martin Luther King would be thrilled by some of the individual progress of African Americans, but stunned, absolutely stunned and saddened, by the state of African Americans as a whole today."
Stevenson adds that to reach King's dream, America must address the causes of poverty, "I think in America, the opposite of poverty is justice. I think there are structures and systems that have created poverty, and have made that poverty so permanent, that until we think in a more just way about how to deal with poverty in this country, we're never gonna make the progress that Dr. King envisioned."
Both believe that America's policies of mass incarceration continue the cycle of poverty. America is the largest jailer on the planet, with 2.3 million people behind bars. But the policy of mass imprisonment, unique among industrialized nations, disproportianatetly affects minorities, especially African American men. One in 100 adults in America is behind bars, but one in nine African American men aged 20 to 34 is behind bars. Much of this arises from the "war on drugs." According to Human Rights Watch, African American adults have been arrested at a rate 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white adults in every year from 1980 to 2007. Yet, according to government statistics, African Americans and whites have similar rates of illicit drug use and dealing.
A consequence of this disparity, and America's harsh treatment of lawbreakers, according to Alexander, is a population of people living in conditions shockingly like African Americans experienced under Jim Crow:
Today in communities of color across America, large majorities of African American men have been branded criminals, felons for life. And as a result, many are denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to public education-- public benefits. Many of the forms of discrimination we thought we left behind in the Jim Crow Era are legal again, once you've been branded a criminal.
Stevenson points out that these are not inevitable policies:
We didn't have to incarcerate people for 10, 20, 30, 40 years for simple possession of marijuana, for drug use. We didn't have to do that. We made choices around that. And now the consequences are devastating. I think they're not only devastating from a political perspective, but — I think this is the way I think it relates to Jim Crow, as well — it's also been devastating within communities of color. Right now, for black men in the United States, there's a 32 percent chance you're going to jail or prison. In poor communities and minority communities, urban communities, rural communities, it could be 60 percent or 70 percent. You're born, you're a ten-year-old kid. There's a 70 percent chance that you're going to go to jail and prison. What does that do to you?
To Listen to the Episode and Access More Resources
Reflections on King's Dreams
U.S. Prisons and Drug Laws