I haven't done much to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day since I was a school kid sitting through old film reels of the "I Have a Dream" speech. I'm guessing I'm not the only one.
But this year, I thought it was time to change my habits. My reasoning was pretty simple: All of us, young and old, can learn something from history. And in a time when so many of us are without jobs and barely hanging onto our homes, the words of Dr. King — who spoke often of our metaphorical and literal "chains" — seem particularly relevant.
So, this morning, I attended the All People's Breakfast. It was well worth the effort. From the incredible music of the Gospel Workshop of America choir, to the reading of the "Poem for Five Voices" (written by our own Poet Laureate Jim Ciletti), to the powerful speech of local NAACP leader and ACLU employee Rosemary Harris Lytle, there was nothing old or tired about the program.
Harris, in particular, brought to life the struggles that still exist for minorities in our country by highlighting one of the most obvious examples of inequality: The criminal justice system.
No one talks about King's message anymore, Lytle told the crowd, everyone now thinks we live in a "colorblind" society. But why, then, are as many as one in three young black men under some correctional control in some American cities? Why is it that in some states 80 to 90 percent of the prison population is made up of people of color?
In describing high incarceration rates for people of color, which is often called "the new Jim Crow," Lytle noted that felons can't find work or homes, or even vote in many cases.
"To me," she told the crowd, "the new Jim Crow looks a lot like the old Jim Crow."
And yes, the world of a felon these days does resemble the life of any African-American before the Civil Rights Movement. Felons are, Harris noted, "disenfranchised for life" — second-class citizens who will face lifelong discrimination at every turn. No wonder so many go back to prison.
It's worth noting, perhaps, that MLK himself was arrested and jailed 17 times in his short life. What, Harris, wondered, would this national hero think of the state of the prison system today?