Today is a national holiday that commemorates the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the larger civil rights movement of which he was such an important part.
America and the world has changed a great deal since King was shot in 1968, most of it for the better. Certainly, the country is a far more hospitable place for African Americans than it was in King's day.
I hope that President Obama's recent comments on marijuana legalization augur the beginning of the end of the drug war, which causes for more disruption in the black community than the sort of overt racism King fought against.
As Jacob Sullum noted eariler today, the president candidly told The New Yorker than pot is no more dangerous than booze and that the war on pot is prosecuted in such a way that minorities, especially African Americans, are arrested and prosecuted for drug crimes at far higher rates than whites. "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol," said Obama of weed, and he cheered on legalization in states such as Colorado and Washington: "It's important for it to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."
About 750,000 people a year get arrested for pot, with more than eight in 10 being charged only with simple possession. Almost half of prisoners in federal prisoners are in for drug offenses and for most of its existence, the Obama administration has prosecuted medical marijuana dispensaries in California with far more energy than even George W. Bush did. It's within the president's power—power that he is happy exceed when it comes to waging wars overseas and in other circumstances—to start the reclassification of pot from a Schedule 1 drug, but he refuses to (a schedule 1 drug is deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no known or accepted use as medicine).
If Obama is in any way serious about ending the war on pot, he's got a lot to work with. Yet in his New Yorker interview, he immediately pivots lauding the state-based experiments in legalization to speculating about what terrors it will wreak:
If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We've got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn't going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?"
Look, if Obama really thinks pot is no more dangerous than alcohol and that the war on pot systematically screws over blacks, why should there be any hesitation in liberalizing the federal policies over which he has control? And using the bully pulpit to push for broader legislative change at the federal and state level? What is he waiting for: a third term? One of the very most frustrating things about Obama is that he is still acting as if he just moved into the White House and is sorting through all the mess left behind by the previous tenant. He's in his sixth year as president!
Time to start moving, Mr. President! Especially on an issue on which 58 percent of Americans agree.
It would be a great way to add to the civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.
Here are some of Reason's writings about King and other movement leaders (more links at bottom of post).
Justice for All: The new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial honors King's universal commitment to justice.
Kmele Foster | October 14, 2011
…it's fitting that the memorial's sole quotation directly referencing race contextualizes the subject within King's broader project. "If we are to have peace on earth," the memorial reads, "our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalty must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective."
In the minds of too many Americans, King is primarily a "black" leader and the civil rights movement he has come to embody is principally the endowment of black Americans. But that view inappropriately qualifies the man and the movement. King wasn't narrowly interested in race; he was broadly committed to justice….
A Fitting Tribute to Medgar Evers: America honors the civil rights hero.
Ira Stoll | November 14, 2011
Each civil rights leader had his own role to play in the struggle for integration. Thurgood Marshall was the lawyer. Martin Luther King, Jr., the inspiring orator. And Medgar Evers was the martyr.
Evers was the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. After President Kennedy had given a nationally televised civil rights speech on June 11, 1963, Evers's wife had let their three children stay up past midnight to wait up for their father, who was returning from a strategy meeting. At about 12:20, they heard the sound of his car, which they recognized. Then they heard the car door open, and then the sound of a rifle shot.
The children kept crying "Daddy, get up, please get up," as their father bled to death.
Medgar Evers was back in the news over the weekend with the U.S. Navy's christening, at San Diego, of the USNS Medgar Evers, a 689-foot, $500 million new dry cargo/ammunition ship. There were remarks by the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi. And by Medgar Evers's widow, Myrlie, who said, ""I will not have to go to bed ever again wondering whether anyone will remember who Medgar Evers is."…
Dream Interpretation: The March On Washington's enduring legacy
Ronald Bailey | August 25, 2003
…[MLK's "I have a dream"] speech also lent momentum to two of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act outlawed state-sanctioned and enforced racial discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws. For example, it allowed blacks to come down out of that theatre balcony in Bristol Virginia. The Voting Rights Act insured that Southern blacks who were being systematically denied the franchise by corrupt voter registration officials would have access to the ballot box.
Sure, these laws are not perfect. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has been interpreted as authorizing the creation of affirmative action programs. This despite the fact that Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) declared specifically that Title VII "would prohibit preferential treatment for any particular group," and famously promised that if this turned out to be wrong that he would eat the pages on which the statute was printed. I wonder if the Senator would have liked the pages sautéed or with a nice béchamel? And yes, the Voting Rights Act has led to "racial gerrymandering." Still, we are a far better, and fairer country because of those laws.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the only remaining speaker from the 1963 march, told the Washington Post, "I wish Dr. King could see the progress that we have made, see the distance that we have come."…
Like Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" remains a touchstone in American political rhetoric and is always worth reading on a day like this (or any other, for that matter). A snippet:
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.
Reason contributor Thaddeus Russell's contrarian take on MLK here.
Damon Root on Moorfield Storey, the libertarian lawyer and "Grover Cleveland Democrat" who helped start the NAACP.
Reason on civil rights.