The Common Good
March 2012

When the Spirit Says Go

by Michelle Alexander | March 2012

The fight against mass incarceration is joined by an emerging faith-based movement.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when I first began writing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, I was taking a leap of faith—trusting that people of faith and conscience would have the same awakening I did, if they had access to the history and facts about the drug war and the myriad laws authorizing discrimination against people released from prison. I trusted people would begin to see the connections between slavery, Jim Crow, and the rise of mass incarceration in America. I clung to the belief that people could and would rise to the challenge presented by this paradoxical moment in U.S. history—a time when there are more African-American men under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850, and yet a black man is president.

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I prayed, literally down on my knees, that if I could just finish the book, a seed would be planted next to the many other seeds of hope and justice; that people would begin to water these seeds; and that a vibrant, multi-ethnic movement for racial and social justice would emerge—a movement that would end not only mass incarceration but the cycle of caste creation in America.

Many people, including a few of my closest mentors, called this foolishness. I was told I was “ruining my career” as a law professor, that I should stick to writing traditional law review articles and not marginalize myself as “some kind of radical.”

I must admit that, after a while, I tried to quit writing the book. Writing it was so much more difficult than I had imagined; I started to think it wasn’t worth the effort. But the Spirit was working in my life in ways that I did not fully understand.

Every time I told my husband that I was giving up, “for real this time,” a letter would show up from a prisoner or family member of someone released from prison, begging me to finish the book. I had given a few media interviews about my work-in-progress, and word had spread. One letter from someone trapped in the system began: “You’re probably thinking about quitting, as I’m sure many people are telling you not to write this book, but do it anyway. Do it for those of us who no longer have a voice.”

I now see I would have been a fool not to finish. A faith-based movement to end mass incarceration has been born, and while my book may not have been the catalyst, it has become an important tool—one that would not have existed if I had not listened to the Spirit whispering in my ear. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC), a network of several thousand progressive black churches, has launched a national campaign dubbed “To Be Free at Last.” The name recognizes the fact that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream will not be realized so long as millions are locked up or relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the right to vote, barred from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, education, and public benefits. The SDPC created a faith-based study guide for The New Jim Crow so church study groups can explore the connections between their spiritual beliefs, the crisis of mass incarceration, and the need to stand for justice.

In a similar vein, The Veterans of Hope Project—through the leadership of Vincent Harding, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriters—is creating an interfaith study guide for the book. Harding rightly sees the movement to end mass incarceration as an extension of earlier social justice movements’ spiritual commitment to the dignity, humanity, and value of all.

PICO, the nation’s largest faith-based community organizing initiative, which represents more than a million families, has embraced ending mass incarceration among its core goals for its Lifelines to Healing Campaign. PICO recognizes that it is impossible to end the cycle of violence in urban communities without also ending the system of mass incarceration, a system that destroys families and eviscerates the hopes and life chances of millions of young people who are shuttled from decrepit, underfunded schools to brand new, high-tech prisons. Speaking to PICO’s national clergy gathering in November, I was blown away by their commitment to engaging ordinary folks, many with no prior organizing or political experience, in meaningful, collective action—acts of faith.

Many people of faith have been working diligently for decades to reform the criminal justice system, some in prison ministries. No doubt many have been tempted to give up, wondering if real change was possible, or if their loved ones, locked in cages, would ever come home.

This is not the time to give up. Listen to the whispers in the wind. Our time has come.

In January, the United Methodist Church announced that its moral and spiritual commitments will not allow it to profit from the caging of human beings. UMC has divested from the largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, and in the future will not invest in any corporation that has gross revenues of 10 percent or more from private prisons. Hopefully others will soon follow suit: No church, faith organization, or university in America should be profiting from prisons.

Change is coming. Let us join together with the “fierce urgency of now” and build the movement of our dreams.

Michelle Alexander is an associate professor at the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow.

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