What Might MLK Say About the Drug War?
On this day when we honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., I couldn’t help wonder what Dr. King might say today about the War on Drugs.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered before the Drug War, as we know it, came to be. Thus, you will not find anything at The King Center about the Drug War. There is every reason to believe, though, that Dr. King would be rightly concerned about drug abuse and addiction among African Americans and the poor generally irrespective of race. There is no doubt that drug abuse and addiction are serious and complex social and health concerns.
Prisontime.org, for example, created a fantastic Timeline of African American support for the Drug War which summarizes African Americans’ long support for, and eventually opposition to, the Drug War. There are some very interesting links and clips on the timeline, for example Congressman Charlie Rangel debating William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1991 – with Rangel, an African American, arguing that 800 police killings were justified juxtaposed against the harms of drugs. Impossible to imagine such a position today, vis-à-vis the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the Timeline suggests, while Dr. King was apparently silent about the Drug War, most African American leaders have historically supported the War on Drugs, based on the real harms that drug abuse and addiction have caused.
Indeed, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) , which Dr. King founded and served as President, established the Wings of Hope Anti-Drug Program in 1989 to address the drug-problem, in part in response to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Then, as for many still now, the focus was on the harms of drugs and not the harms caused by the Drug War.
However, by the time the Drug War was approaching its 40th year, books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (2010) were arguing that the Drug War was causing more harm than the drugs themselves, and indeed that the Drug War was worse than any ill it was intended to prevent.
Thus, by 2011, the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s War on Drugs, the NAACP had called for an end to the Drug War with a 2011 NAACP Resolution entitled: A Call to End the War on Drugs, Allocate Funding to Investigate Substance Abuse Treatment, Education, and Opportunities in Communities of Color for A Better Tomorrow.
“Today the NAACP has taken a major step towards equity, justice and effective law enforcement,” stated Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP. “These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America.”
A month later, Robert Rooks, Director of the Criminal Justice Department for the NAACP, posted a blog entitled: U.S. Approach to War on Drugs Ignores Dr. King’s Lessons on Justice, Compassion.
As we reflect on what Dr. King stood for, we must ask ourselves, what would Dr. King do about the war on drugs? Would he watch the destruction of black families and communities? Of course not!
As long as the war on drugs leads to mass incarceration, racial stratification and the erosion of our civil rights and liberties, we must do as Dr. King would do, fight for its defeat and create a new dialogue rooted in “love implementing the demands justice… and power correcting everything that stands against love.” At its core, this would mean substance abuse and mental health treatment for all those who need it, not incarceration for nonviolent drug felons.
– Robert Rooks, Director of the Criminal Justice Department, NAACP, NAACP Blog Post August 24, 2011.
The NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet details some of the racial drug sentencing disparities that lead it to call for an end to the Drug War:
Drug Sentencing Disparities
- About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug.
- 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.
- African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
- African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). (Sentencing Project)
Thus, while I cannot presume to speak for Dr. King, and I certainly would not put words in his mouth, I have listened to his words. In hearing him speak I hear a call for social justice and equality. I hear a call for compassion and human dignity.
In listening to Dr. King speak out against the Vietnam War and his call for the end of that unjust war on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, I listened with my ears and mind open to Dr. King’s call being a call to end any and all unjust wars:
“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.”
– Martin Luther King Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” Speech, Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967
Dr. King’s words against the War in Vietnam were extremely controversial and unpopular when he uttered them. I expect he would be no less willing to speak truth today as he was then, and no less willing to suffer the consequences of speaking the truth. I expect confronted with the incontrovertible evidence that the Drug War is unjust and more harmful than the problem it was intended to fix, he would call for an end to the Drug War today had he lived to witness its horrors.
So while I would not put words in in mouth, here I have taken two words out, “in Vietnam” and imagined his words as a call to end the unjust war that is the War on Drugs.
“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor … I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption … I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.”
Jeremy Theoret for Drug War Stories.