People stand on the wreckage of a house destroyed by an air strike last year that was targeting al Qaeda-linked militants, in the southern Yemeni town of Jaar February 1, 2013. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
For the past several years, I have spent virtually all my working hours writing about or speaking about the immorality, cruelty, racism and insanity of our nation’s latest caste system: mass incarceration. Since the publication of my book The New Jim Crow, I have spent countless hours speaking in public forums—from universities, to prisons, to churches, to legal conferences, to community centers and beyond—about the birth of a new system of racial and social control, a penal system that would surely have Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turning over in his grave. I have written and spoken about little else.
But as I pause now to reflect on the meaning and significance of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, I realize that my focus has been too narrow. Less than five years after the march, Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America’s militarism and imperialism—famously stating that our nation was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad and the utter indifference we have for poor people and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and reward greed hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage. In the years following the March on Washington, Dr. King ignored all those who told him to stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights.
Yet here I am, decades later, staying in my lane. I have not been speaking publicly about the use of drones abroad in a “war on terror” or the use of SWAT teams in routine arrests in the “war on drugs” at home. When we declare war on “things” like terrorism and drugs, it becomes easy to forget that real people—mothers, fathers and children—will be targeted, caged and killed without due process, without consideration of their basic humanity, and without asking the hard questions required of complicated social and global problems that cannot be solved by a simple declaration of war.
I say that I want to honor Dr. King, but I have remained silent on many things that matter. I have not been talking publicly about the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas and forecloses on homes with zeal, all while unemployment rates reach record levels and private prisons yield high returns as they expand operations into a new market: jailing immigrants.
I say that I want to celebrate Dr. King’s contributions, and yet I have not been connecting the dots between the National Security Agency’s spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as “terrorist organizations,” and the spy programs of the 1960s and ’70s—specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs, which placed civil rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated their organizations and assassinated racial justice leaders.
I have been staying in my lane.
But no more.
In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after the march. In the years following the march, he did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars for justice. Instead, he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order, so that the dream he preached in 1963 might one day be a reality everywhere in the country. Dr. King said that nothing less than “a radical restructuring of society” could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. And he was right.
I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will simply be erected in its place, all because we did not do what Dr. King demanded we should: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.
Last month, Mychal Denzel Smith critiqued the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Dr. King’s March on Washington.