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On MLK Day: How a Racist Criminal Justice System Rolled Back the Gains of the Civil Rights Era

For Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Democracy Now! hosts a discussion of mass incarceration among African-Americans and how it has created a new Jim Crow era.
 
 
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On this eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, we host a wide-ranging discussion with TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson and author Michelle Alexander about the mass incarceration of African Americans that has rolled back many achievements of the civil rights movement. Today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870. Alexander, whose book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" is newly released in paperback, argues that "[n]othing less than a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America or inspiring a recommitment to [Martin Luther] King's dream... My view is that this has got to be a human rights movement. It’s got to be a movement for education, not incarceration; for jobs, not jails; a movement that acknowledges the basic humanity and dignity of all people, no matter who you are or what you have done." 

AMY GOODMAN: On this eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday, you write about King in the book. You write about how he once shows up in Richmond and the inspiration of Gray when he saw him speak. Did you meet Dr. King?

RANDALL ROBINSON: He came to my high school. And he walked down my aisle. This was just after the beginning of the bus boycott, and he had become a national figure. And my brother Max and I were sitting on the aisle. And my father, who taught history at the school, was back behind us. And he shook our hands, and I looked back at my father. I looked back at my father. It was a special, special and memorable moment. But even Dr. King is said to have said about this lost memory that, to quote him, "The Negro knows nothing of Africa." I think he said that with some pain and some distress.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of Dr. King. This is from the famous address in 1963, August 28th.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On this eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday, we want to bring Michelle Alexander into this discussion and talk about Black America. Today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchise laws than in 1870.

AMY GOODMAN: A legal scholar and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander has argued in her recent book that although Jim Crow laws have been eliminated, the racial caste system it set up remains intact. It’s simply been redesigned, and now racial control functions through the criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander is the author of  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

 
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