Martin Luther King, Jr. and the New Jim Crow

The following is excerpted from Rev. Alexander E. Sharp’s Hyde Park Union Church sermon, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the New Jim Crow,” preached on January 20, 2012.

More than any other person, Martin Luther King, Jr. eliminated the scourge of the first Jim Crow, the segregation of African Americans in every possible way: separate schools, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, even funeral homes, morgues and cemeteries. He helped us to see—as few others ever have—our common humanity, the enduring truth that we are all one.

On this 84th anniversary of his birth, almost 45 years after his death, how would he react today to our national life together, especially when it comes to race? A compelling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, gives the question special relevance.

Today, through a vicious conflating of race and crime, African Americans are trapped in a new caste system. In 1971, Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. It was race-driven. A member of the White House staff said as much in 1968: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” In looking at the votes they wanted, one of his colleagues added, “We’re after the racists.”

Currently, the United States incarcerates 2.3 million individuals, more than any other country in the world, more per capita than Russia, more than China, more than South Africa. Last year one out of every 100 adults was actually behind bars. One out of 31 is under the control of the U.S criminal justice system.

Over half of the adult black male population in Chicago has a felony record. Our young black men are more likely to go to prison than college. Last year there were 20,000 more black men in the Illinois state prisons than enrolled in the state’s public universities.

One of the conditions of parole is that you cannot associate with felons. But fully 70 percent of the men between the ages of 18 and 45 in North Lawndale are ex-offenders. This once led Paula Wolff, a civic leader who has fought the new Jim Crow for years, to comment: “It is hard for a parolee to walk to the corner store without being subject to a parole violation.”

If Dr. King could talk with us today, he would help us see the difference between the racism perpetrated by individuals against other individuals and structural racism. In the early days of the movement, when Dr. King was fighting the first Jim Crow, he spoke about black men, women, and children, not structures. He called for each of us—his children and ours—to be judged as equals. He lived to see the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

It can be hard to see what the War on Drugs is doing to the black community. That’s true even as we change drug laws at the margin. When Chicago decriminalized marijuana this winter, treating marijuana offenses as a traffic ticket rather than an arrest, what we heard about most was the need to save money so we could have more police on the streets. Who told us that even simple marijuana arrests—over 50,000 in Illinois, 850,000 nationally—ruin lives? Toni Preckwinkle is the only major elected official in Illinois I know who says it straight. At a League of Women Voters meeting, of all places, I watched her hold up a copy of The New Jim Crow. She told the audience that our schools fail the black children in Chicago, and then we arrest them.

One in every 15 black men was behind bars in 2006 compared to 1 in 104 white men, even when drug use is the same across ethnic groups. That’s structural racism. Do we wonder how this came about? It’s because we are still segregated by race and income levels. Police have discretion on where and how to enforce laws. Drug sweeps simply would not be tolerated in white neighborhoods. That’s structural racism.

Martin Luther King would have gone beyond the War on Drugs. He would have seen it as a scourge, but also ultimately as a symptom. He would work toward something that Michelle Alexander says we have never been able to sustain in this country—a movement of poor whites and poor blacks and Hispanics. He would lead a movement seeking not only racial justice, but human justice; not only African American rights, and Hispanic rights, and women’s rights, but Human Rights.

“It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights,” he told the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in May, 1967. In his last series of sermons, he said, “The dispossessed of this nation—the poor white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty….The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”

As we remember Martin Luther King on this day, neither should we despair. Instead, let us resolve together that the caste system in the form of the War on Drugs that has been imposed upon African Americans, and therefore, upon all of us, will be the last such caste system ever to exist in this country. Let us look beyond the goal of racial justice, to a world of human rights, in which we express the eternal truth—as Martin Luther King taught us—that we are one in the eyes of God, who loves us all.


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