Fifty years ago today, more than 250,000 people marched on Washington, 75% of them black. They heard Martin Luther King Jnr, give a speech that echoed around the world and echoes to us down through history.
Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial - a position of enormous symbolic significance, King delivered his dream of racial equality, telling the US and the world that African-Americans would no longer be subject to the Jim Crow system of segregation, denial of voting rights and racial violence that had followed the Civil War and the Reconstruction in the South.
“The Negro is still not free,“ King lamented:
The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination … the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity … the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatise an appalling condition.
His words - and the social and political consequences of the march were widely credited with creating a groundswell of agitation for civil rights in the US that would see the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year and the Voting Rights Act the year after that.
But to what extent has King’s vision of social as well as political justice materialised in the half century since his speech?
Racial tensions still simmer
Despite the election of Barack Obama, the scars of the history of racism in the US and segregation remain deep. The recent trial of George Zimmerman demonstrated how close racial tensions and division remain to the surface of US society.
In his blog Berkeley law professor at Berkeley and expert on the US prison system, Jonathan Simon, discusses the ongoing impact of racial profiling in the case and concludes that race was central to the jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman. Simon writes that the verdict would have been different had Martin been: “a 17 year old female, a 54 year old white male, or even a 17 year old white male”.
Had Zimmerman been sent to prison he would have found himself incarcerated alongside a disproportionately large number of African-American inmates who are be jailed at a rate six times higher than white people according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In her acclaimed study, The New Jim Crow, legal scholar and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander outlines the impact of mass imprisonment that has now achieved the questionable distinction of imprisoning more black people than were slaves in 1850.
As well as documenting these, frankly, astonishing rates of imprisonment among young African-American men, Alexander considers the debilitating long-term impact on the individuals and their communities.
Among other things, she traces the rapid escalation of black numbers in US prisons to the War On Drugs, launched by Ronald Regan in 1982 ostensibly as a response to the escalation of crack cocaine use in poor, urban, and largely black communities. Alexander highlights the manner in which the news media became obsessed with racialising the urban poor, creating a normalised image of the black prison inmate.
Whatever the roots of the War on Drugs its impact on US penal policy has been astonishing. In less than 30 years, the US prison population has increased from roughly 300,000 to more than two million. The US has thehighest rate of imprisonment of any developed nation – for example Sweden has an imprisonment rate of 63 persons per 100,000 or poulation (Germany has 93 and the UK has 149) in comparison to the US’s rate of 716 per 100,000 in 2011.
The majority of this increase is due to drug convictions. As Alexander argues:
The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.
A Human Rights Watch report Punishment and Prejudice highlighted the disparities in the rates of impresoment of black men compared to whites in the US prison system, painting the picture of a “vast drug gulag” and recommending a range of ways this situation could be remedied.
Millions of lives blighted
There is little sign of improvement in the decade or so since the report was released. The gulag grows ever larger. But even if it were to end tomorrow, Alexander argues that the long-term impact of having a criminal record has blighted millions of black lives out of all recognition of King’s 1963.
This blight extends beyond the realm of employment to gaining access to range of welfare services. For example, individuals and families can be excluded to access to social housing on the basis of a conviction for a minor drug offence. Those with a criminal record in many jurisdictions are barred from juries and denied the vote.
King’s role in the civil rights movement and its success is rightly celebrated – there is even an official holiday in his honour. But as Alexander and others show, there is much to be done if the vision of the march on Washington is to be finally realised and Martin Luther King’s dream is to come true.