US Marijuana Party

Thursday, December 01, 2005

From the Back of the Bus to the Prison Cell


In 1955 Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus for a white man. The 50th anniversary of the boycott is being commemorated this week in Montgomery, Alabama, with a series of events from museum exhibitions to a dramatic reenactment of the mass meeting where the African American community decided to boycott the city's buses.

Alliance public policy analyst Gabriel Sayegh will be in Alabama to take part in the events - not only to commemorate the importance of the boycott that kicked off the civil rights movement, but also to work with Alabama's New Bottom Line campaign, which advocates for criminal justice reform in the state. Over the course of the commemorative events, they will remind celebrants that though formal, legal segregation no longer exists, Jim Crow lives on in the form of the war on drugs and the prison system.

In Alabama, African Americans, who make up approximately 25 percent of the state's population, constitute 60 percent of the state's prison inmates. Nationwide, 74% percent of people sent to prison for drug offenses are black, though only 13% of blacks use illegal drugs - a rate of use comparable to that of whites and other groups.

“It’s important to honor and celebrate a key moment in American history when the black community of Montgomery organized against systemic racism and racial and economic violence,” said Sayegh. “But what has happened in the South—and the North, for that matter—since the Civil Rights revolution? Jim Crow laws have been refashioned into the war on drugs, and communities everywhere, black, brown, and white, are worse off for it. We are attending these celebrations to support our campaign partners and to lend our strength to the conviction that the struggle for civil and human rights continues.”

Alabama prisons now face a serious overcrowding problem. A recent report commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance found that rapid growth in Alabama’s prison population - which currently ranks fifth nationally - was fueled by the incarceration of people convicted of non-violent offenses, primarily drug and property violations. African Americans have been hit especially hard by prison expansion and overcrowding.

The New Bottom Line Campaign, of which the Alliance is a part, is run by Reverend Kenny Glasgow of Dothan, Alabama, and Reverend Kobi Little of Selma, Alabama. The campaign seeks to end the war on drugs in Alabama and restore communities that have experienced devastation as a result of failed criminal justice policies. Members of the campaign will speak at various bus boycott commemorative events to communicate the message that sentencing reforms and a public health approach to drug policy in Alabama are essential to further advancement of civil rights.

Unlocking the New South
By Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
7/20/2003 © Tribune Media Services

There is a new South in America. It is the South of CNN, of the Atlanta Olympics, of German carmakers in South Carolina. It is the South of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, neither of whom would have been president if not for the end of segregation.

But across the South, much of its potential is locked up - literally. Consider Alabama. Montgomery, Alabama was one of the first stirring struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, triggered when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of that bus. Now, almost 50 years later, the promise of Alabama needs to be unlocked.

In the past 30 years, Alabama's population has increased 30% while its prison population has increased 600%. Alabama incarcerates people at five times the national average. There are over 27,000 prisoners in Alabama today, with a prison budget totaling over $200 million dollars a year. Over two-thirds of those prisoners are African American. Four out of five prisoners (84%) committed non-violent offenses. This jail care policy has stripped 240,000 Alabama residents of the right to vote. 14% of the voting age population of African Americans is disenfranchised. Lock them up to lock them out. The drug war has replaced the poll tax as the way to keep African Americans from voting.

Incarcerating people for non-violent offenses, particularly drug crimes, increases the discretion exercised by police, prosecutors and judges. They can decide who gets arrested and who gets a warning; who gets charged for a felony and who gets a deal; who goes to jail and who walks.

In this system, none of Alabama's appellate judges is African American. Only 16 of 220 judges in Alabama are Black. None of the District Attorneys are Black, and only 8 of 67 Sheriffs. The back of the cell has replaced the back of the bus.

Alabama's prison habit is expensive. The prison budget is higher than the state education budget. In 2000, tuition at the University of Alabama was $3,300 a year. It costs almost three times that - $9,000 - to incarcerate an inmate for a year. But the number of African American prisoners in Alabama exceeds the number of African American college students.

Priorities have consequences. In the modern economy, what you learn has a huge effect on what you earn. Spending more on prisons than on schools is a recipe for poverty, and Alabama is poor. One out of every four children lives in poverty. One-third of the people live in poverty - and 44% of African Americans. These are not lazy people, since one-third of the jobs in Alabama are at the poverty level or below. You can work full time in Alabama and stay poor.

When the Montgomery Bus Boycott took place, the cynics said nothing would or could change in the South. The segregationists controlled the scene - the statehouse, the legislature, the local officials. But Dr. King showed that a people that would rather walk in pride than ride in shame could change the world.

It is time to go back to the South. It is time to enlist the New South against the remnants of the old. Pitch the South of opportunity and diversity against the South of reaction; champion books over bars, and schools over prisons. It is time to register people to vote and to challenge the laws that would strip a citizen of the right to vote for committing a crime even after they had repaid their debt to society. That mean-spiritedness offends the spirit of this country, founded by people rounded up from debtors' prisons. It also offends in the midst of the Bible Belt the central teaching of the Bible: the forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of resurrection.

At the national level, pundits tend to write off the South as a Republican bastion. They say national elections will be decided in the contested industrial states of the Midwest and the go-go states of the Southwest. Bush spends his time traveling to Pennsylvania and Ohio, not to Alabama and Georgia.

Indeed, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he predicted that Democrats would lose the South for a generation. And starting with Nixon, Republicans practiced a race-bait politics that made their party the party of white sanctuary in the South. Now, however, a generation has passed. A New South is growing. Immigrants have brought a new diversity, beyond the black-white tensions. Workers - including white workers - realize that the region's poverty drags down everyone. You can't lock up hope forever. It is time for a new citizens’ movement to register people to vote, build alliances across lines of race, and finish the liberation of the South. It is time to go back to the South.


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