The King That Was and the King That Wasn’t (Part 3 of 3): Civil Rights in the U.S. post-MLK and the creation of the Prison Industrial Complex


     IMG_1358 If, during his lifetime, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shown a vision of what the world would look like 45 years in the future, there would certainly be cause for devastation. The unresolved issues he spoke out against in his final days, such as high poverty rates, the excessive military budget, imperialistic wars, the growing income gap, unequal housing and residential segregation, have gotten uniformly worse. But what would have devastated him most was something more destructive than even he could have ever predicted or saw coming: the mass incarceration of people of color.

‘Justice’ in ‘colorblind’ America

  picIncarcerating poor people en masse is the primary tool used to feed what is most commonly referred to as the prison industrial complex. Nothing has been more destructive to Black and Brown families in the past 50 years than the massive expansion of the U.S. prison system which operates very similarly to how a private industry does. Like the military industrial complex, the prison industry thrives by stepping on the backs of societies’ most vulnerable citizens, and both industries are the only ones guaranteed to remain in a constant boom. This is articulated most effectively in author Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, in which the author explores and retraces the history leading up to the creation of the current system. [1] This history officially begins shortly after the time Martin Luther King & the SCLC, NAACP, CORE, and SNCC, among others, succeeded in knocking down centuries-old restrictions on the rights of Black people in the American South and bore witness to the signing of new laws promising the guaranteed protection of their most basic civil rights. It seemed of the demands made during their hard-fought battles seemed to finally be coming into fruition, filling African Americans with a greater sense of hope for the future than at perhaps any other time in American history. Sadly, this ray of hope simultaneously seemed to further draw the animosity and resentment of most white Americans, whose age-old prejudices couldn’t be legislated into disappearance. How were they then to reconcile their internal hate with the new reality of their professional lives, where it was now illegal under federal law to discriminate against someone on the basis of race? It was this dual reality that gave birth to the widely held notion of “colorblindness”. “Colorblindness” is the doctrine that most whites claim to strictly adhere to in the professional everyday world of business. It is basically a declaration proclaiming “I don’t see race” or that “a person’s skin color has absolutely no impact on my decision-making. I am free of all racial prejudice.” Although this certainly sounds great in theory, it’s a complete whitewashing of American history and relies on the presumption that white male patriarchy no longer has any significant effect on the lives of millions of people. By attempting to turn the page on U.S. racist history, without ever having sincerely attempted to heal the wounds inflicted in the past, is tantamount to an assurance that racial inequities will continue to worsen.

In an ironic twist, “colorblindness” has acted as a cover for people in positions of power to practice discrimination at every level of American society and it places racial justice advocates on the defensive instead. Because it is most often the case that racial prejudice is not specifically mentioned as a basis for one’s actions, the burden of proving racial bias or racist intentions singularly falls on the person who is potentially the victim of discrimination. In the absence of an explicitly racist statement or action, it is nearly impossible to prove. These conditions have presently given rise to an unconscious racism among many white people who sincerely consider themselves completely free of all race prejudice, yet still make determinations based on stereotypes they hold in their minds. [2] No matter the motive, the resulting effect is still the same: severely disproportionate amounts of Black and Brown citizens being locked away in America’s prison cells.

It even has a detrimental effect on the jury selection process used in court, providing state and federal prosecutors, provided they give a ‘race-neutral’ explanation, with the cover they need to exclude African American and Hispanic people from participation. (*) [3] According to recent studies, at least 20% of African American defendants nationwide are convicted by juries of all white people. [4] This has a hugely negative impact on who is considered deserving of death by the State and who isn’t. Black and Brown citizens are sentenced to death at a rate hugely disproportionate to their population size, even when they are charged with committing the same crimes as whites. [5] Additionally, even though half of all murder victims in this country are Black, it isn’t at all reflected in the imposition of capital punishment. When taking into account all cases which resulted in death sentences, over 80% were in retribution for a crime that involved a white victim. [6] While statistics can never fully represent the real human tragedies in each of these deaths, they do speak volumes about which lives matter to the U.S. legal system and which lives do not.

A “War on Drugs” or a War on People

mm15The profession of “colorblindness” was used most effectively in the calls for a national Drug War. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear to more and more people that the so-called “War on Drugs” acts and has always acted primarily as a tool for creating and maintaining a permanent racial under-caste. [7] Since we live in an era where, in theory, it is not socially acceptable to have an apartheid-like system of racial subordination, it is critical to understand the ways in which racism manifests itself in the current political structure. Many cannot wrap their minds around the notion that something called the “War on Drugs”, which is presented as absolutely race-neutral, can be inherently racist. In fact, on the surface it may even sound like a good idea. The detrimental effects drug usage itself has played in the destruction of many lives in every class of society should not be minimized, and I don’t intend to do so here. I have witnessed first-hand the pain, adversity and downfall that comes with drug addiction. The “War on Drugs”, however, has done far more harm to the problem than good. It hasn’t done anything to provide treatment to those who currently suffer from addiction, nor has it done anything to prevent the further spread of drugs on the streets. In fact, from a funding standpoint, the largest casualties of the Drug War have been public education and substance-abuse treatment facilities. Both of them serve, consequently, as the most effective measures of preventing further abuse of drugs. Instead of spreading knowledge through education, the government has continued to build larger prison warehouses. Instead of treating those who suffer with addictive health problems with care, the government has locked them away in cages and forced them to suffer through eternal shame and quiet humiliation. [8]

The seeds of what became an all-out military-style war on America’s inner city streets were first planted in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, as the “Southern Strategy” was being put to maximum effect. (**) As mentioned in part 2, the Southern strategy was a brilliantly executed strategy aimed at unifying working class whites together to form an unbeatable GOP coalition, a task the strategists admitted could only be done if they were able to “devise a system that recognizes [‘the whole problem is the Blacks’] while appearing not to.” [9] Although it was the Administration of President Richard M. Nixon that pioneered the campaign strategy of equating drugs with Black people, it was Ronald Reagan’s Administration that went beyond the coded rhetoric and used the subliminal imagery to effectively change policy. Contrary to popular belief, illegal drug usage at the time of the Drug War’s declaration was on the decline. [10] In fact, some experts in 1972 were of the opinion that prisons were on a course for extinction. They had little way of knowing that the world’s largest concentration camps would arise instead to take their place. [11] It was feared, however, that the Americans public wouldn’t sit idly by while tens of billions of their dollars were spent annually on an intrusive war stripping people away of their privacy, not unless they could be convinced that it was one worth fighting. From the onset of the Drug War’s targeted media campaign, negative stereotypical imagery accompanied by divisive rhetoric flooded the airwaves on a level never seen before in U.S. history (with the possible exception of the Reconstruction era). [12] Age-old stereotypes once used to justify slavery, segregation and other means of social control were invoked to coincide with the sudden national outcry over the “crack epidemic.” Greater emphasis was given to stereotypes that Black people somehow had a monopoly on criminality, lacked discipline, relied on “government welfare” as a means of living, or remained impoverished due to their own “laziness” or own moral ineptitude. (^)  Also harking back to the days of slavery were the viciously cruel stereotypes of Black women as promiscuous beings who produced multitudes of children who were born as a result of her untamable sexual appetite. Only now she wasn’t only giving birth to babies “out of wedlock”, but ghetto “crack babies”. [13] There are too many correlations between propaganda used to spread misinformation in support of the Drug War and the propaganda of previous eras, but there was one key component noticeably different. In the Drug War’s implementation, mention of race and beliefs in racial inferiority were absent from the political debate. With the constant bombardment of negative imagery, it isn’t even necessary for the public to hear it. Absorbing these images and hearing the accompanying rhetoric associated with it is more than enough to leave most people with an idea of who the “enemy” is. In fact, they feel rest assured that they are free of all prejudice and racism. After all, the conventional logic goes, these images were presented as part of news pieces which “had nothing at all to do with race”.

mm12With public opinion now firmly on its side, the Administration had gathered the momentum needed in order to urge Congress to swiftly pass legislation granting them the powers for implementing the Drug War. For Congress, it was just passing another law, but for America’s poverty-stricken communities, the ramifications were immediate. For most of United States history, there has been a rather sizable prison population in comparison to the rest of the world, ranging anywhere from 200,000-300,000 incarcerated people. That was the case even as late as 1982, when the Drug War officially began. [14] Only thirty years later, the amount of human beings trapped in America’s brutal prison system had more than quintupled in size. By this time, both political parties shared equally the amount of the blood on their hands after President William Jefferson Clinton’s Administration sought to prove the President was even more “tough on crime” than the Republican party of Ronald Reagan. [15] (^^) By the year 2000, the end of President Clinton’s 2nd term, there were a total of 1.3 million human beings living trapped inside American cages, and just nine years after that, in 2009, the number had increased to nearly 2.3 million. [16] This makes the United States of America by far the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the entire history of humanity. How sickly ironic it is that the nation which boasts of being the freest country in all the world at this very moment has more of its citizens locked away in its cages than the world has ever before known. To put this in an even more international context, consider this: the United States holds just 5% of the entire world population, yet it contains 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. In addition to the 2.3 million currently incarcerated, another 5 million people are on parole or probation. [17] Of the immense growth in the federal prison penitentiary populations taking place in the last four decades or so, 75% can be exclusively attributed as a result of the Drug War. And for state penitentiaries, it’s 50%. This reality stands in stark contrast to the public perception of convicts being people who end up in prison because of their inherently violent nature. Furthermore, of those who were arrested and/or convicted on drug charges, 4/5 of cases involved drug possession, not sale or distribution. A sizable portion of these arrests involve possessing nothing more than a few pounds of marijuana, a substance scientifically proven to be far less dangerous to one’s health than cigarettes and alcohol, both which are sold legally and used recreationally. [18]

  IMG_1339 Of course, the Feds knew they had to offer some incentives for state and local police departments to enthusiastically carry out the War on Drugs. What better way to do that than by offering material benefits and equipping them with military combatant equipment? Federal grants along with highly advanced artillery were provided based on the amount of drug arrests made and strict quotas were put into place. These changes in procedure were essentially made it a cop’s job to ensure that drugs continue to spread rapidly throughout the communities. After all, their very job is to seek out and make as many drug-related arrests as possible. And if that weren’t enough, the “drug forfeiture laws” served as icing on the cake. With help from the Supreme Court, law enforcement officers were given the means by which they are entitled up to 80% of property seized during drug-related arrests, including money, vehicles and homes. [19] The 4th Amendment to the United States’ Constitution states that all persons should be guaranteed security “in their persons, houses, papers, and effects”, yet its declared purpose has been rendered irrelevant to today’s militarized Police State. The federal government achieved exactly what they had hoped for: increased militancy of every police department nationwide, armed guards known to practice brutal acts of terror on poor people and people of color in the past. Now their tactics were given an official seal of approval from the highest Court in the land, the Supreme Court.

Race and the “War on Drugs”

   As tempting as it may sometimes be, it is impossible to effectively challenge the “War on Drugs” and the effect it has on mass incarceration without specifically viewing it through the lens of race. Without a truly sincere and thorough understanding of the history of U.S. racial hierarchal structures, it is next to impossible to understand how a declared war on a physical substance can result in the wildly disproportionate imprisonment of people of color. As mentioned previously, the quintupling of the amount of bodies filling up America’s prisons is largely due to these archaic policies. Every reputable study done in the past 30 years has unanimously come to the same conclusion: African Americans, Hispanics and white people use and sell illegal substances at similar rates (in fact whites have a slightly higher rate) [20] (*^). And yet Black and Brown people were 85% of people caught up in the drug incarceration boom from 1970-2000. [21] From its commencement, the Drug War was concentrated almost exclusively in urban inner city dwellings, or ‘ghettoes’, largely consisting of Black and Brown citizens who live well below the national poverty level. To put it in war terms, the occupation zone and battleground areas were intended from the start to be in the places that have the least amount of political power. [22] (^*) Now try envisioning a similar situation, only this time it’s white men who are rounded up in droves and taken away from their communities. Would the U.S. political system not feel immense pressure to put an end to the inhumane practice before they pay the ultimate political price? (+) Racial bias is so prevalent when it comes to policing nonwhite people that the racial dynamics become more disproportionate with each stage of the process.  Even though African Americans as a whole compose just above 13% of the national population [23], they are 35% of people arrested for drug-related offenses, 55% percent of those convicted for drug-related offenses, and a staggering 74% of those incarcerated on drug-related charges. [24] There is simply no conceivable explanation for the fact that African Americans are sentenced at a rate 10xs higher than that of whites for drug violations other than purely unadulterated racism. America would never sit idly by knowing there’s a 1 in 3 chance that each white male would at some point in his life be incarcerated, put on probation or parole. Nor would they remain silent if in seven states of the union whites composed about 80-90% of the incarcerated population. [25] (++) Yet this is the current reality for people of color, and there’s no shortage of justifications given to explain why it’s necessary to continue to destroy peoples’ lives, alienate them from their families, and break apart their spirits. Those caught up in the Prison Industrial Complex suffer from physical and mental abuse, shame and humiliation that will likely last them the rest of their lives. Being labeled a “felon” carries with it a stigmatization that society never lets one forget or live down, and there are laws in place to ensure this punishment is eternal. Some of the everlasting indignities include insurmountable prison fees, legalized employment discrimination, the near impossibility of finding steady employment, loss of voting rights, denial of nearly every form of public benefit (i.e. public housing and food stamps), and limited access to meaningful treatment for drug addiction or mental health care. [26] In this cold world, there is no being “rehabilitated” or “paying one’s debt” in the view of society. All that remains is a tragic fight for survival against poverty, mental isolation, and endless cycles of incarceration. [27] This isn’t by any means a unique phenomenon. This is reality for the lives of millions of American citizens whose very existence stands in dark defiance to their country’s illusionary façade of “justice” and “equality” for all.

Race-based gerrymandering and political disenfranchisement

The United States far overpasses every other nation when it comes to the amount of its people it incarcerates, by rate and amount. That this could somehow be the "freest nation on earth" is nothing more than an illusion.
The United States far overpasses every other nation when it comes to the amount of its people it incarcerates, by rate and amount. That this could somehow be the “freest nation on earth” is nothing more than an illusion.

The penalties placed on the victims of mass incarceration have resulted not only in their disenfranchisement, but the disenfranchisement of the entire communities they belong to. Unlike other felons, drug felons rarely have their voting rights restored. The restoration of voting rights is usually left to the discretion of State Governors, not exactly people known to emphasize with the plight of the dispossessed. [28] But that’s not even the worst of it. Consider this: the National Census Bureau counts people who are locked away behind barbed-wired fences, in cages of steel, not as citizens of the communities from which they came, but as residents of the town in which they are imprisoned. [29] This has the effect of hugely overinflating the voting population of areas where prisoners are held captive. These are mostly densely populated rural areas which mainly consist of people who are generally wealthy and white. In contrast, the massive populations who fill up the community’s prisons largely consist of poor people of color. Because of these circumstances, the small populations who dwell in these rural areas and are not prisoners end up wielding an extremely overinflated amount of political power and influence; whereas the already suffering communities from which the prisoners came are deprived of important resources and hugely underrepresented in politics. [30] The denial of voting rights based strictly based on nonviolent felonies harkens back to a time when African Americans in the South were denied access to the voting booth based on misdemeanor offenses, poll taxes, and literacy tests. But prison-based gerrymandering harkens even further back to a period in the American South, a time in which slaves who weren’t allowed to vote were counted as 3/5 of a person so that the slave-master could be further enriched with political power. The institutionalized racism we see today, however, is perhaps even more difficult to challenge than the institutional racism of years past, because it doesn’t manifest itself in explicit terms. One can’t help but wonder how Martin Luther King Jr. would have been able to form a strategy to counter this injustice, as it was much different in nature than what he was accustomed to.

Prison Expansion: a booming economic industry

   To attribute the enormous spike in incarceration to being the result of political scapegoating alone would be far too simplistic. As has always been the case in situations involving racist exploitation, there is an underlying economic motive which corresponds with the political objectives. Privately owned and operated prisons are currently one of the nation’s most booming economic industries, even as other industries suffer under the weight of economic recession. The growth in private manufacturing of prison warehouses came as a result of state and federal facilities overcrowding. [31] These private prison companies even have their own stock exchanges for wealthy individuals to invest large sums of money in. (#) This should cause one to wonder, if prisons are literally being operated by corporate CEOs out to make a bigger profit, what motive is there for the profiteer to not continue the expansion of the private prison industry and accumulate more wealth? The prison industrial complex has grown so large that there is an entire class of people raking in the big dough based on how many human bodies can be locked up, whose financial interests rely solely on the ability to fill up prison cells in order to be able to construct more. The prisoners, much like captives onboard an 18th century slave ship, are actually rented out to various different companies so that they can perform manual labor. If this sounds eerily similar to slave labor, that’s because it is. [32] The 13th Amendment to the Constitution itself, often touted as the end to all forms of slavery, held within it a line that often goes unnoticed: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for as punishment for a crime… shall exist within the United States.” [33]

The path ahead

  mm14 Had Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived past his untimely death by gunfire in 1968 and lived to see another 45 years, he would have had to find a way to confront all of the hard-hitting issues that have emerged since. How he would have done that we are not certain. But from the words he spoke during his final years of life, we can gain a clearer picture. While Dr. King surely was a man of rather middle-class origins, his final fight was spent almost exclusively advocating and struggling with those among us who lived in the most terrible conditions of poverty, who society had ignored and blamed for their own conditions. When the question is asked, “What would Martin Luther King Jr. do now” the answer should take into account all of his life, not just carefully selected quotes he made during a single speech during a march in 1963. In his final days, he was decidedly anti-war and anti-capitalist in all circumstances.

While today, politicians of every color and political persuasion offer kind words of praise for Dr. King and his legacy, one can’t help but wonder what government officials would be saying today had he not been martyred and struck down by a bullet. If you truly want to know the answer, look no further than the secretly kept memos of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, the FBI. Under the direction of notorious racist and war-monger, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI sought to destroy King’s public image by any means necessary. They wiretapped his phone conversations, sent him threatening letters, attempted to draw him into sex scandals, and kept track of his every move, all because they considered him to be “the most dangerous Negro leader in [America].” [34] (#*)

The best way to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and ensure that his messages of peace and equality remain relevant today is not by erecting an expensive monument on the National Mall constructed in his likeness, nor is it by celebrating his birthday as a national holiday January of each year. Flattering as they may be, neither project manages to give voice to his strong condemnation of U.S. imperialism, violence, and most importantly capitalism. If this side of King is not taught to coming generations of young people, then his real vision will be consigned to the dustbins of history, and the “Dream” will move further away from becoming reality.


Noted Sources and Citations:

  1. Alexander, Michelle. (2010). The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. Pages 20-57.
  2. Alexander, 178.
  3. Alexander, 119-120. ; National Public Radio. (2010, June 7). Study Finds Blacks Excluded from Southern Juries.
  4. Love, David A. (2012, Jan. 3). The Racial Bias of the U.S. Death Penalty. The Guardian. ;
  5. Death Penalty Information Center. (2002, Oct. 7). Race and the Death Penalty.
  7. Alexander, 17.
  8. Feliner, Jamie. (2010, Aug. 10). A Drug Abuse Policy That Fails Everyone. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from
  10. Alexander, 6.
  11. Alexander, 8-9.
  12. Alexander, 47-52.
  14. NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (2010). Captive Constituents: prison gerrymandering and the distortion of democracy.
  15. Alexander, 54-56.
  17. McLeod, Gerald. (2009, Mar. 10). U.S. Prison Population is the Largest on Earth. Yahoo! Voices.
  18. Alexander, Michelle. (2010, Mar. 3). The New Jim Crow: how the War on Drugs gave birth to a permanent American Under caste. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from
  19. Ibid.
  20. Human Rights Watch. Universal Periodic Review a Chance to Address Human Rights Challenges (letter to Attorney General Eric Holder). ; Szalavitz, Maria. (2011, Nov. 7). Study: Whites More Likely to Abuse Drugs than Blacks. exclusive.
  21. NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Free the Vote: unlocking democracy in the cells and on the streets.
  22. Rivas, Jorge. (2012, Nov. 21). DEA Agent Says He Was Told Not to Enforce Drug Laws in White Areas. ;
  23. United States Census Bureau. Quick Facts. Retrieved from
  24. Gunja, Fatema. (2003). Position Paper: Race and the War on Drugs. ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project.
  28. Alexander, 153-156.
  31. Mason, Cody. (2012, Jan.). Too Good to Be True: private prisons in America. Sentencing Project. ; Private Business is Booming; Strong Growth Expected.
  32. Gane-McCalla, Casey. (2010, Feb. 18). Judge Mathis Calls U.S. Prison System Modern Day Slavery. News One for Black America.
  34. Full quote is of William Sullivan who was at the time #2 in charge of the FBI: “We regard Martin Luther King as the most dangerous Negro leader in the country.” Abu-Jamal, Mumia. (2003, July 13). 40 Years in the Wilderness. Prison Radio. ; Garrow, David A. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Pages 372-374.



Other Notes:

* In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes a situation in which one prosecutor excluded a potential Black juror on the basis of, in his own words, “his long curly hair”, “mustache”, and “goatee type beard.” He said he didn’t “like the way [he] looked” and it made him appear “suspicious”. When this reasoning was challenged in the 1995 Purkett v. Helm case, the ruling held that the prosecutor acted in an acceptable manner.

** The original masterminds or architects of the “Southern Strategy” were the strategists working on Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, the most famous of which was Lee Atwater. Atwater’s playbook would serve as the blueprint for Republican strategists for decades to come. Among his successors were Roger Ailes, currently president of Fox News, and famous George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove.

^ The perceived laziness of African Americans has been a stereotype put on them by white people and doesn’t apply to them any more than it would whites. The hypocrisy of it is mind-boggling when you consider how this stereotype dates all the way back to slavery, when Black people were stolen from their own lands and forced to do the work that those white people were, dare I say, too lazy to do for themselves.

^^ That Clinton was essentially trying to out Republican the Republicans has had little effect on his legacy with many in the progressive community. He is lauded for several minor reforms while the fact that the “Tough on Crime Act” which placed some really terrible restrictions on how people labeled “felons” could reenter into society. It became nearly impossible for the formerly incarcerated to even have a chance of not returning to prison due to many of the measures in this particular Act, such as denial of public housing, food stamps, or any other means necessary for survival. Without a job, shelter and food together with prison costs which are owed, how exactly is one not to end up back in prison?

*^ Many who reason to accept these studies’ validity or its implications on the unfairness of the Drug War are often heard making the argument that while maybe white and Black people use drugs at similar rates, drug dealers are overwhelmingly Black and Brown. This argument is completely without merit, because the vast majority of drug dealing is done intra-racially, not interracially.

^* More and more evidence comes to light almost yearly from people who were once affiliated with the Drug War. Last year, former U.S. Marshal, Matthew “Batman” Fogg recalled being specifically told not to enforce drug laws in wealthier more affluent areas (which are mostly white), for they feared political repercussions.

+ When I say “pay the ultimate political price” I mean facing the end of one’s political career and aspirations.

++ In fact there are more African Americans incarcerated, on probation or parole in America today than were enslaved in the South a decade prior to the Civil War.

# Former vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, owned a large share in the Vanguard Group’s stock, which is a private prison production company. He was indicted on corruption charges in 2008 in the State of Texas, but of course nothing came of it.   

#* In fact, the FBI considered a plot to place an attractive white female in his office in hopes of sparking a national sex scandal to take King down almost immediately in the aftermath of his celebrated “I have a dream” speech.

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