We have heard much about what we ought to be thinking about on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I got to put in my two cents on the “Jim Lehrer NewsHour” — or at least, one cent. While I was talking, something accidentally went wrong with the studio feed (it happens), and the time it took to fix it meant I had to leave out something I wanted to say.
Namely, the anniversary of King’s death should have us thinking about something important happening right now, which would have been of more interest to King than to most of the people who think of themselves as keeping his legacy alive.
Not long ago, people had their knickers in a twist over whether Hillary Clinton was “racist” in saying that Lyndon Johnson was the one who actually got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
Yet Mrs. Clinton quite clearly gave King his due credit. The rub was that many are used to thinking about the demise of Jim Crow as a drama, in which, naturally, what deserves attention is King’s protests, and especially his speech at the March on Washington.
The wonkier part of the story, in which President Johnson convinced a wary and often balky Congress to get behind a real bill, doesn’t stick in the mind as easily. Fewer fireworks, nothing to replay on YouTube.
Importantly, King was every bit as much a part of this aspect of the story. After the speeches, King and his associates hashed out programs and legislation proposals with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. There was no sense among the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that their job was to do the street theatre and then leave the nitty-gritty work to others.
This brings me to what we should have heard a lot more about last week.
For black press commentators on occasions related to King, there is a certain formulaic utterance expected. There is room for variation, but one is to say basically that while we’ve come a long way, if King were alive today he would decry how far we still have to go. What gets lost in these incantations is any serious interest in indications of progress along that last long mile. Yes, this year, one was expected to say something about you-know-who with the funny name, but even there, current wisdom is that the Jeremiah Wright flap means that white people Still Don’t Understand.
But there’s more. Last month the Second Chance Act finished its pathway through both houses; President Bush signed it yesterday. It enshrines in national policy something that would have sounded like science fiction just five years ago: a national commitment to keeping ex-cons from going back to crime and prison.
Every year 700,000 ex-cons come home; in a typical city that can be around 2,000 people, most of them black men without high school diplomas or job skills. Big surprise: in many cities, in three years most are at least arrested again, while one in three are back behind bars.
The result is communities where it is a norm to grow up without a father, seeing men you know well engaging in illegal activity, and internalizing a sense of legal work as an option rather than an obligation.
No one wants this, and the Second Chance Act addresses it. There will be rehab behind bars, as well as education. There will be employment training and counseling on finding housing after release. Until now, prisoner reentry has been a scattering of programs nationwide: now, we have a Re-entry Resource Center coordinating them, providing tested gameplans.
The Second Chance Act is, quite simply, a landmark piece of Civil Rights legislation, forged across the aisle by politicians of all stripes just as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were.
The Bush administration, which has been behind it for years, has not explicitly touted it as a policy designed to help Black America — and it should have. However, it has not been precisely difficult to get a handle on the existence of the Second Chance Act, or the groundswell of commitment to reentry issues in America’s cities lately. I would think this would have been an obsession among those dedicated to black issues. But it hasn’t been. I caught no one last week mentioning the Second Chance Act as something King would have taken an interest in. Rather, the formula was to say that he would have been dismayed at how many black men were in prison.
This is missing from what made King great. For him, the complaint would have been a herald only, for a subsequent quest to get the Powers That Be in line with making the complaint unnecessary.
So there’s my extra cent. What would have dismayed King was that so many think they are keeping his flame alive with performative speculations as to whether Vogue’s cover with LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen is racist, unaware of what the Second Chance Act even is, much less that it passed.
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