EDITOR’S NOTE: The following remarks were delivered before the Urban League on Friday, July 25.
I would like to thank the Urban League, and specifically Marc Morial and Donna Jones Baker, for your hospitality and warm reception.
All Clyde Kennard wanted was an education, but being black in Mississippi in the 1950s, nothing came easy. Instead of getting into college, Clyde got into trouble. Clyde was released from prison a few months after I was born. He was imprisoned for the crime of wanting an education.
The first time he tried to enroll at Mississippi Southern, the police planted liquor on him, jailed and fined him $600.
After his second attempt to enroll at Mississippi Southern, he was arrested on trumped-up charges of stealing $25 of chicken feed from his repossessed farm.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison — seven years! — for a crime that he didn’t commit.
A man of lesser courage or character would have been bitter. Kennard responded from a higher plane. He wrote: “We have no desire for revenge in our hearts. What we want is to be respected as men and women, given an opportunity to compete with you in the great and interesting race of life.”
Clyde Kennard did not live to see the triumphs of the civil-rights era. But when I think of Clyde Kennard, I am reminded of the challenges we still have with criminal injustices in America, and I am encouraged to keep talking and working toward solutions.
Three out of four people in prison for non-violent crimes are black or brown. Our prisons are bursting with young men of color, and our communities full of broken families. Yet, studies show that whites use illegal drugs at least as much as African Americans and Hispanics.
Why are so many young men of color incarcerated?
Because, frankly, it is easier to arrest and convict poor kids in urban environments. The problem is compounded when federal grants are issued based on conviction rates.
A new study shows that from 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers in prison rose from 350,000 to 2.1 million.
There is a cycle of poverty that often leads from drugs to debt and to prison. In prison, child support can accumulate into the thousands of dollars. Release from prison finds that employers don’t want to hire a convicted felon. With few options of real work, the cycle begins again.
Enough is enough. I will not sit idly by and watch our criminal-justice system continue to consume, confine, and define our young men.
I say we take a stand — and fight for justice now!
As a Christian, I believe in redemption and I believe in second chances.