Civil rights leaders on Saturday — nearly half a century after Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a Dream” — demanded reforms for racially-tinged criminal justice issues, such as police “Stop-and-Frisk” tactics and mass incarceration.
These policies, among others, have added to the increasingly heavy cost of incarceration of African-Americans and impeded the march forward to equality, leaders said.
Martin Luther King III spoke where his father stood 50 years ago, declaring “I have a dream” to a crowd of 260,000 at the original march on Washington that sparked the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights reforms.
Joined by a cast of civil rights leaders and government officials that included Attorney General Eric Holder and Rep. John Lewis, who spoke at the original March, King said on Saturday that the civil rights movement had made great strides in the last half-century, but “the journey is not complete.”
King called for federal anti-profiling laws, immigration reform and the repeal of so-called “Stand Your Ground” self-defense laws.
“The tears of Trayvon Martin’s mother and father remind us that, far too frequently, the color of one’s skin remains a license to profile, to arrest and to even murder with no regard for the content of one’s character,” King said, referring to an unarmed 17-year-old boy who was shot and killed last year by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. He was later acquitted of all charges on the grounds of self-defense.
Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, spoke briefly, advocating for self-defense reform.
“We have to fight for our freedom,” Fulton said. “It’s very important that we not forget. That we make sure we’re mindful of what’s going on with the laws.”
The numbers are startling: one in three black men can expect to be in jail during their lifetime. African-Americans are arrested at nearly six times more than whites and almost one million of the United States 2.3 million prison population are black.
But perhaps at no time since King's famed speech have the often-parallel topics of racism and criminal justice been so intertwined and in the spotlight. On August 12, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the “Smart on Crime” program, a sweeping initiative by the Justice Department that pivots away from decades of tough-on-crime anti-drug legislation.
That same day, Judge Shira Scheindlin of U.S. Southern District Court in Manhattan, declared the New York Police Department's use of “stop-and-frisk” unconstitutional. The tactic is used to search individuals — predominantly minorities — for drug paraphernalia and guns.
On Thursday, the New York City Council voted to override two of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's vetoes of bills meant to curb “stop-and-frisk.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson hailed the votes as a referendum to move public resources from over-policing black neighborhoods.
“Keep dreaming to go from stop and frisk to stop and employ, stop and educate, stop and house, stop and choose schools over jails,” Jackson said.
Later in the morning Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before a raucous ovation. The crowd, like many other speakers, showing appreciation for his announcement Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice intends to sue the state of Texas to block a voter photo identification law and redistricting — both alleged to be racially discriminatory.
“This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice – until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote,” Holder said.
“It must go on until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law.”
Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.