Reflections on the March on Washington 50th Anniversary

My husband Bill and I were involved in a number of the many activities that took place commemorating the 1963 March on Washington.  What a blessing to be here in the District of Columbia to participate.  Here are some snapshots:

Most Moving

On Friday the 23rd, we attended an event presented by The Mamie Till Mobley Memorial & Trayvon Martin Foundations, and it was called “Civil Rights, Human Wrongs, and the Charge for Youth Leadership.” It featured a film by Keith Beauchamp, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” which had been updated to include a bit about the Trayvon Martin case, followed by a panel discussion with Emmett Till’s family and the parents of Trayvon Martin.

I am aware of how awful the murder of Emmett Till was, but it wasn’t until I saw the film, which took us through the ensuing trial and release of the murderers, that it really hit home to me how horrendous life was for black people living in the South in those days.  I thank my parents for moving from their home in Mississippi to raise us up in relatively safer northern Illinois.  Even though I experienced segregation and some hate growing up, it was nothing like the deep south. I was also moved by the strength of Emmett Till’s mother, for without her willingness to display the body of her son so brutally beaten and butchered, the murder would have passed by unnoticed by most of the rest of this country.

I am absolutely moved by the grace and strength of Mr. and Mrs. Martin and their younger son as they share the case of Trayvon’s murder with the world.  They have taken up the mantle just like Emmett Till’s mother, and have helped to make it clear to this country that laws like the Stand Your Ground Laws and the Stop and Frisk laws are tools that are used to target and brutalize people of color, especially our young men.

Most Inspirational

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Bill and I had decided we could not handle being out in the sun and on our feet from 8 am to 4 pm at the Saturday March for Jobs and Justice, so we waited until about 11 am to go.  I wasn’t sure if many people would attend–I just hoped there would be enough people to make a statement.  But even at that late time, we found the subway packed with people of all ages and races still on the way. Having to stand in line to get out of the subway moved me to tears.

On our way to the Lincoln Memorial, we saw a stream of people leaving, even though the crowd coming in was much larger.  Bill stopped to ask one woman why they were leaving, and the older woman said she’d been there since 6:30 am.  I’m convinced that there were more people there that day than could be counted, because the crowds were coming and going like that all day long.

I heard Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped to organize the 1963 march, on a radio interview say that they had no idea how many people to expect when they planned that first march. Can you imagine how the organizers must have felt when they stood on the steps of the LIncoln Memorial and saw the great crowd of witnesses pouring in? The people have spoken!

Most Fun

On the way to the Lincoln Memorial in that first march, we found ourselves behind a group IMG_0174of United Auto Workers who were chanting and marching, so after a while we began to chant and march right along with them!  On the way back from the Lincoln Memorial, we were provided with some wonderfully jazzy music.  At one point, while waiting for the crowd to move forward, a white man in front of me began to kind of bounce, and another, older white man on the side started dancing, so I said “Let’s get it on” and started dancing, too, and so did a few of the other folks.  What fun!

Most thought-provoking

On Tuesday, we went to a panel discussion hosted by the Methodist Federation for Social Action entitled “Climate of Suspicion: The Criminalization of Race in America.” One of the panelists was Reverend Gil Caldwell, a good friend of Bill’s.  The discussion centered around the mass incarceration of people of color, so you know Bill and I were right at home.  Rev. Caldwell provided the necessary theological reflections for people of faith, Charles Thornton discussed his experience as a youth with no guidance, ending up in prison for 10 years for distributing an illegal drug before he was old enough to make a life for himself, and Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU, provided statistics and some information on actions.  This was an excellent panel, but what was most thought-provoking for me was our conversation with some of the other people there who were members of the MFSA.

We ate with a small group of them after the discussion before heading over to Asbury United Methodist church for a worship service.  We shared common concerns, with Gil helping to keep us focused on the larger moral, cultural and theological pictures.  One thought that came to me as we talked about greed being such a major cause of injustice is that maybe we ought to start being more intentional about teaching our children a better attitude towards money and materialism. Someone at that table suggested that the church is the place where that should happen.

I woke up the next morning, on the day of the commemorative march, with my mind on a phrase from our Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which had been sung several times throughout the various events):  “lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.” Has the Christian church in the U.S. become drunk with the wine of materialism and greed without realizing it?  Food for thought.

Most Uplifting

We attended the Interfaith Service at Shiloh Baptist on Thursday morning before heading out to the commemorative march.  I was so happy to be there in a church packed with people of different faiths, ages and races, hearing from the march leaders and  blessed with star performances by the Shiloh Baptist Choir, the Children of the Gospel Choir, the Voices of Freedom, Lydia and Latrice Pace (who rocked the house with their song “There’s a King in You”) and the fantastic Angella Christie, who praised God on the saxophone in her rendition of “Total Praise” (If you’ve never heard of her, you ought to check her out).

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The discussion between Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. and his son, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III was absolutely wonderful!  The father passed the torch on to the son, symbolically climbing up stairs towards justice.  Those on the journey haven’t got to the top of the stairs, but the older ones have gone as high as they can climb. They must stop at their landing, having done much to break the bonds of racism and hatred, but now it is time for the younger leaders to move on up the stairs from that landing into the direction the stairs are leading today:  voting registration laws, stand your ground laws, mass incarceration of our youth, public school funding….you know the list.  You can see the whole of this wonderful service by clicking here.

Most Inspirational (part 2)

To our surprise again, the March on Thursday the 28th was just as packed as the first, even though the threat of rain pervaded the day. It was so packed that we decided not to wait the hours it would have taken to get through the security checkpoint.  We made our statement by attending for a while, then we went back home to watch our President’s Speech on TV. While he was inspiring, as usual, I had hoped he would provide some concrete plans or legislation that would help deal with the issues we’re facing.  But the more I thought about what he said, the more I got what he was saying.  He’s telling us that it’s up to us to make the difference that we need to make.  It’s up to the people to not only march, but to take the necessary action to make change happen, like Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders did in 1963.

We’ve spoken with our feet.  Now we need to speak through our email and internet presence, through our letters and phone calls to federal, state and local representatives, through our community activities and our continued engagement with each other. Now we must speak truth to move the “powers that be” to make this wonderful country live up to it’s Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Amen.

More Puzzling

In last week’s post I reported on a 2010 article I found by Steven Hawkins on The American Prospect website entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  Mr. Hawkins drew the connection between increased state spending for prison systems and the failure of inner city schools, and he predicted the school closings and reduction of support for poor children that we are seeing now.  Fast-forward to a May 2013 article in The American Prospect entitled Children of the Great Collapse, by Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He was formerly chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economics team. Dr. Bernstein provides an extensive and informative report elucidating the economic benefits provided by the Obama Administration’s Federal Recovery Act, and how the success of that effort is now being undercut by a mean-spirited (my term) political climate that claims to be based on reducing deficits.

Dr. Bernstein explains: “The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault.” He analyzes what this means to the people who need help the most:  “….the data make a solid case that the policies we’ve put in place over the years…..worked well. But when you combine this perhaps under appreciated information with the well-known long-term stagnation of middle- and low-income working families’ incomes, we end up with the anomaly: A lot of folks get some insulation from the downturn but stagnate in the upturn.”

Here is where the puzzle pieces provided by these two articles come together. Dr. Bernstein concludes his report by wrestling with the question “What types of measures might help give families and kids a fighting chance at claiming more of the economy’s growth?”   The two things he suggests that will most likely help are income support for low income families and quality preschool. On preschool, he says “A large body of research shows both how important quality preschool is for later outcomes and how its returns over a lifetime far surpass its costs. In his State of the Union address, the president cited the well-documented finding that $1 of investment in good preschool returns $7 of benefits. These results are particularly strong for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.”

The connection with last week’s article is clear.  Both of these articles ought to help us see that we’re all in this puzzle together. If we help those who need it most, we will find that over time we spend less money and reduce heartbreaks all around. Providing quality preschool funding and early childhood education support will help prevent the dramatic costs we pay for the cycle of broken lives, the crime that touches all of us, our overburdened court systems and the overpopulated prisons and parole systems. When we direct more of our taxpayer dollars to help rather than to punish, we’ll replace the jobs that are lost in the prison industry by the increase of jobs in education and social services. The only ones who stand to lose in this scenario are those who aim to get rich by putting our children in prison. And they are a powerful lobby.

While this part of the puzzle ought to be clear by now to anyone who’s paying attention, what’s more puzzling is why we can’t seem to get anything done about it. Could it be the powerful lobbying? More to say on that next week.

I’m getting tired of ranting about this.  It’s time to take action.  So, for starters, I’m asking all who care about poor children to do something pretty simple:  Call, write, email, text, or twitter your Senators and Congress persons and tell  them you support our President’s initiative to provide preschool support for children. Here’s one of several websites that will give you contact information for Congress: http://www.contactingthecongress.org

That’s easy enough to do.  Let us know when you do it.

 

Puzzling

I like it when puzzle pieces come together.  I’m one of those people who will sit up through the night trying to get the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to gather in completion.  When the pieces come together, the picture becomes clear, and being able to see the puzzle’s hidden picture provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Steven Hawkins, the  executive vice president and chief program officer of the NAACP (who just yesterday was announced as having been selected to become the next executive director of Amnesty International) wrote a December 2010 article for an online magazine, The American Prospect entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  [Just in case you need to know, you can click on the green print to reach to the sites mentioned.] Mr. Hawkins provided some important information in that article to support some of the things I’ve been saying (or rather ranting about) in this blog about the importance of providing more financial support to educate the poorest of our children.

He provides information to document that most states are increasing spending for prisons and decreasing spending for schools. His premise is stated here: “Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially, expanding from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million people in just three decades. … We spend almost $70 billion annually to place adults in prison and jails, to confine youth in detention centers, and to supervise 7.3 million individuals on probation and parole. Indeed, confinement costs have claimed an increasing share of state and local government spending. This trend has starved essential social programs — most notably education.” He reports:  “In 33 of 50 states, corrections-related costs made up a larger proportion of the general fund than in the previous fiscal year, while spending on K-12 and higher education decreased.”

That’s one piece of the puzzle.  Another piece into which it fits is the connection between the increased spending for prisons and the failure of schools in poorer neighborhoods:  “NAACP research shows that …the lowest-performing schools tend to be in the areas where incarceration rates are the highest.” He then predicts: “When future budget years arrive… and states and counties try to balance their books without the assistance of the federal stimulus, young people will experience more of the same: school closings, teacher layoffs, diminished after-school programs, and rising tuition at colleges and universities. All of this will happen while prison spending grows.”

Isn’t that what we’re seeing now, in the recent reports of battles over school closings in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Chicago? Isn’t that the picture we’re seeing as we look at skyrocketing costs of higher education? Dr. Hawkins concludes from putting these pieces of the puzzle together:  “If states were to properly invest in reopening schools, keeping quality teachers, maintaining sensible classroom sizes, and sustaining the affordability of higher education, it’s quite possible — particularly for economic crimes like low-level drug dealing — we would not need to imprison so many people and could stop sinking our valuable taxpayer dollars into an investment that has demonstrated scant return.”

Is the picture of this puzzle becoming clearer for you now?  I hope so.  In order to help those who need it the most, children from poor and low-income families (i.e., “the least of these” according to Jesus in Matthew 25), we must provide them with strong education, beginning with pre-school, and affordable higher education.  Yet, instead of doing that, they’re closing down the schools in the neighborhoods where most of the least of these live and, through the sequestration, cutting back on services to help them.  We see the picture of that puzzle described by Mr. Hawkins coming together, right now.

So the question for us Christians is who will help the least of these? The least of these are those who need a hand up so they can make it in today’s system, but the political climate instead approaches them with a fist.  The least of these are children who are able to do better if they are helped, but those who have the ability to help them continue to engage in practices that instead make them fodder for the prison system. If we do nothing, we are the ones who help keep together this puzzle that shows a clear disregard for serving the least of these, who, in case you didn’t read the passage, are Jesus.

 

Who Profits From Imprisoning our Children?

 

Just today I received an email with this link to a Youtube video showing a street fight in my home town, Maywood, Illinois: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXhXmWDAeaY Associated with that link are links to other street fights.  I didn’t want to watch them, but apparently videotaping street fights and posting them is a thing with some people.

I couldn’t help but wonder what will be the future for these young people.  And I couldn’t help but wonder how they got to be like that.  Last week’s blog  (The Victims of Poverty) was about how tough it is to grow up healthy in impoverished neighborhoods. No matter how much these kids may celebrate their street gang lifestyle, it’s not healthy.  They are likely to end up in prison, having babies they can’t take care of, and dying too soon. And they won’t know how stupid it is for them to waste their lives like that until it’s too late.

There is a culture around them that encourages the gangster lifestyle.  This culture includes people who they don’t see, but who profit from their foolishness.  These are people who’ve invested in keeping the gangster lifestyle alive, an underground network of support for them, in a sense.  Like those who profit from drug sales.  I’m not talking about the sellers on the street, or even the local drug lords.  I’m talking about the ones who make the real money, from the producers to the shippers. I don’t know enough about how it actually happens to speak with authority on it, but I think it’s common knowledge that if there were not large profits being made by those who produce and ship the drugs into the neighborhoods, the drugs wouldn’t be on the street.

Yet, the “War on Drugs” has focused mainly on arresting and imprisoning the end users and local suppliers, with a special focus on those who live in poor and Black neighborhoods.  In an op-ed article for Reuters entitled “The US Drug War and Racial Disparities,”  Bernd Debusmay shared this common knowledge:   “African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for 33.6 percent of drug arrests and 37 percent of state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses.” A Human Rights Watch report  on drug arrests and race analyzed data relating to drug arrests and prison admission, concluding that in 2003 “…blacks are 10.1 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses.” This has been consistent over the years, and our prison population has consequently exploded.

The music industry has also profited from the gangster lifestyle. It is well documented that the music industry has historically been involved with the mob.  I don’t know that much about it, but it is also clear that the mob mentality is what has fueled the success of the infiltration of rap music with gangster mentality. And those who profit from gangster rap include more than the gangsters like Tupac, Eazy-E and Biggie Smalls, who are likely all multi-millionaires.  The really big money makers include the recording companies and agents and others who’ve been involved in the music industry much longer than the gangsters.

There is a post going around the internet that someone who claims to have been a leader in the music industry was invited to a secret meeting by some investors in private prisons. In that meeting the plan was pushed to promote gangster rap in order to popularize criminal activity and thus create a need for more privatized prisons.  You can read the whole post here. Some debunk this theory, such as Michael Raine of the Huffington Post in “Gangsta Rap Conspiracy Theory Goes Gangbustas”.

Could it be true?  I wouldn’t be surprised, because of the money involved. And because the prison industry is in fact profiting from the gangster mentality.  Bernd Debusmay, in the above-referenced article on the Drug War and racial disparities, recognized that one of the difficult problems in attempting to reduce the number of people being imprisoned is the rise of the private prison system:  “The biggest obstacles for change are entrenched interests. By some estimates, getting the prison population back to where it was (in terms of percentage of the overall population) before the drug war began would cost the jobs of at least a million people working for the criminal justice system. Not to forget the damage reduced incarceration would do to the flourishing private prison industry.”

In my home state, the new prisons–although not yet privatized– are located downstate, far from where most of the prisoners come, and in a locale where the prison industry is one of the largest employers. The political will to lose those kind of jobs will be hard to find downstate, especially when it’s not their children who are being imprisoned. I sure hope that’s not the fate of the kids in that street fight.

With those kind of entrenched interests, it’s easy to see why imprisoning so many of our children has not received the attention it should in the highest levels of our justice system.  It’s easy to understand why it’s not one of the issues argued in political debates.   Isaiah tells us that God is displeased when  “justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, and honesty cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14), and that “God was appalled that there was no one to intervene.” (59:16).  Justice is failing our children, and truth is not being spoken on their behalf.  We need the prophetic voice of the Church to speak this truth to power until they listen and act.

A good source for more information on racial disparities in our system of justice: The Sentencing Project.  And you might want to read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer.

The Victims of Poverty

I remember thinking, when my first grandchild was born, about how new babies bring with them so much new love into the world.  I felt that same love for my children and many other babies as well, but for some reason it was that first grandchild, over whom we profusely “ooh-ed and ah-ed,” who really connected me to the thought that this is one way God brings more love into the world. The thing about babies is that they are so beautiful and yet so very vulnerable.  What a great responsibility it is to care for a fragile, tiny being who cannot survive without our help!  It’s hard enough for a family with sufficient monetary means to raise a child, but for parents who struggle to make it in life, raising a child successfully becomes much more difficult.

As our society advances further into the information age, or digital age, as some call it, workers must compete more and more for professional jobs (engineers, doctors, teachers, etc.) or settle for low wage service jobs. And in the competition of a globalized economy, the wages for service jobs are no longer sufficient for raising a family. Many families are already left behind as the market has shifted from industrialization to information.  Education is the key for their children to compete successfully, but studies have shown that children born into poverty will need twice as much financial support to successfully compete with children born into more affluent families. That’s support these families can’t provide.

Often when I talk about the need for schools to provide stronger support systems for poor children, the response I get is that the family needs to do more.  I agree that families should be involved in their children’s education–they should help the children with their homework and participate in school activities and work alongside the teachers to help their children succeed.  But too often they just don’t, or they won’t, for reasons that run the gamut from never having had that role model in their own lives, to working more than one job to bring the food into the house, to having some kind of health problem or being caught up in drugs or some form of addiction that disables them.  These are the children whose parents either will not or can not help them succeed, no matter how much they may love them.

The result is that children who do not receive the additional support are likely to  drop out of school.  And they will end up in jail. Nowhere is this seen more blatantly than in the lives of black boys born in inner-city poverty stricken neighborhoods. The Schott Foundation for Public Education publishes data on the outcomes for Black males in public education, called “The Urgency of Now.”  They report that in 2009-10 the national graduation rate for Black male students was 52%. This sadly low number is a new high, and for the first time was more than half.  These numbers include a higher graduation rate for black students who are in more affluent high schools, which indicates that: “…Black males, on average, perform better in places and spaces where they are not relegated to under-resourced districts or schools. When provided similar opportunities they are more likely to produce similar or better outcomes as their White male peers.” You can access their latest report here:  http://blackboysreport.org/national-summary/preface

Tavis Smiley produced an excellent documentary, recently broadcast on PBS, on the problems many of our inner city black boys face, entitled “Too Important to Fail.”  These children come from impoverished families and broken school systems, where “zero tolerance” and juvenile detention feeds too many of them into the prison system.  He interviews several educators who have dedicated their lives to helping black boys succeed, as well as several of the boys.

Here is a bit of the information he provides:

  • We begin to lose students in school around the 3rd Grade, when they move from learning to read to reading to learn. If children don’t master reading by the 1st grade, they will have less than a 20% chance of graduating high school.
  • The children are victims of societal problems that they have no control over, such as drugs and violence in their neighborhoods and lack of health care, and the schools must provide social services to bring stability in their lives if they are to succeed.
  • Extracurricular activities that keep the children off the streets are extremely important.
  • The children need teachers who care, and show it, and who fully expect the children to succeed.
  • They need curricula and teachers they can relate to.
  • They need role models, because, as one of the children in juvenile detention put it, “Without a role model, you just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
  • For some of these children, prison is what’s normal in their neighborhood.

You can see the show online at:  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/

If “prison is what’s normal” for these children, then they are achieving what is expected of them.  I would hope that we would expect so much more.  Yet, states are less willing to spend more money on schools, while spending more and more money on prison systems. When school budgets drop, services for students are dismissed first. The saddest thing about this is that investing in the children while they are small is clearly much more economical for states than putting and keeping our young men in prison.

The Church needs to use her prophetic voice to speak the truth about this to those in power, in order to save these children’s lives.

I’d love your comments!  Next week:  Whose making money by putting our children in prison?