It has been more than 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for his strong and unapologetic stance against racism, unjust laws, economic injustice and the devastating impacts upon the Black community. Dr. King and those who fought alongside him during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s put their bodies, reputations, and lives on the line to fight for our freedom from oppression, discrimination, White supremacy and terrorism.
Although some progress was made, we still have a long way to go before realizing Dr. King’s Dream of a society in which all people are treated equally with access to equal economic opportunity and equal protection under the law.
Honoring Dr. King’s legacy in the 21st Century means rigorously interrogating the U.S. criminal justice system and refusing to accept the high rate of incarceration among African Americans, those who cannot read, those who are poor, and those with mental health issues. As a result of enacting the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ending chattel slavery, the language opened the door to a new form of involuntary servitude for those who have been “duly convicted” of a crime.
Following the enactment of the 13th Amendment, prisons—particularly those in the South—went from having almost all White incarcerated persons to having almost all Black incarcerated persons. The laws were changed in many Southern states to make standard behavior by Black men a crime, which all but guaranteed the incarceration of newly freed slaves.
The legacy of incarcerating poor Black people at a disproportionate rate is as American as apple pie and needs to be challenged and dismantled with a fierce sense of urgency. We must stand against unjust drug laws and conspiracy laws that target low-level drug offenders and open the door to high rates of incarceration amongst those who are actually in need of access to economic opportunity and other supports that would promote upward mobility.
Unjust laws, desperation borne out of poverty, and disconnection from community have contributed to the cycle of incarceration and recidivism that is plaguing our community. We know that these issues are not happening by coincidence, but they are deeply connected to our nation’s unresolved racial issues and laws, policies, and practices that are used to uphold a system of discrimination and White supremacy.
We cannot afford to continue to lose hundreds of thousands of Black men, women, and children to the system of mass incarceration, which merely exacerbates the problems impacting our families and communities.
We must begin to reframe the discussion around mass incarceration as embodying one of the lingering effects of slavery and anti-Blackness in this country, work to educate people, and organize our communities to relentlessly challenge this harmful and oppressive system.
Dr. King worked tirelessly to fight for equal economic opportunity and redress for the financial impacts of slavery upon the Black community from one generation to the next. In fact, the lack of financial redress and compensation for American Descendants of Slavery continues to impact the Black community, and relegates too many in our community to the margins of society.
Dr. King powerfully captured the essence of what the Black majority was experiencing in 1963 during his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” during the March on Washington, and what too many Black people are still experiencing in 2020. He boldly stated:
“But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
The chains of discrimination, segregation, and poverty that Dr. King was referring to are still very much in existence. Those chains, often invisible to the average person, impacts access to equal employment opportunities and equal pay, the ability to buy a home and/or to rent a place in the neighborhood of one’s choice.
Those chains impact the educational choices that Black children have, including access to technology, safe schools, and quality teachers. Those chains play a role in Black kindergarteners being suspended from school more often than their White peers. Those chains impact older Black children being pushed out of schools and placed in special education at disproportionate rates.
Those chains impact the fears we experience when encountering police along with the lengths we have to go through to protect our families from becoming victims of their misconduct, violence and abuse. Those chains reflect the fact that all too often, the plight of Black America is invisible and is met with indifference rather than empathy and urgency to change things for the present and for future generations.
If we truly want to honor Dr. King’s life and legacy, we must rise up and refuse to accept the conditions that are stifling the Black community and robbing us and our children of our destinies. We must get organized across all corners of our community and find ways to fight back against the status quo. That is what Dr. King would have wanted, and that is what his legacy demands of us: Seek justice.
Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney, activist, and executive director of Wayfinder Foundation.