Martin Luther King Behind Bars

On Martin Luther King Day, one of the few holidays recognized with a day off at the University of Oregon, I was honored to spend the evening at Oregon State Penitentiary with an Inside-Out class. It seemed fitting to spend the day honoring the life and work of one of America’s greatest civil rights advocates talking with students from UO and OSP about issues of race, inequality, and change. There is more to it than that, however. It you asked Michelle Alexander (see earlier post), she would tell you that mass incarceration is the latest iteration of racist American social and legal policy. Honoring Martin Luther King’s legacy is important--the work that he and his fellow civil rights activists did to transform the American racial landscape is remarkable, to say the least. Nonetheless, spending time in a prison is a clear reminder that racism still exists. As the inside students articulated, racism manifests on the yard, in relation to gangs, and in the chow hall. It is also evident in the disproportionately high numbers of minorities incarcerated in the United States. Martin Luther King Day, in that context, serves as both an acknowledgement of real changes in the past fifty years, and a reminder of the portions of Martin Luther King’s mission that remain incomplete.

The day was significant for another reason as well. Not only a day honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, January 21 was the day that our nation’s first black president was publicly inaugurated for the second time. As a class, we talked through the significance of the day, both in terms of what Obama said (and didn’t say) but also with regards to the significance of his very presence at the podium.

Towards the end of the class, recognizing both the enormous achievements of the past fifty years as well as the continued prevalence of inequality (racial, but also much more than that), we listened to a King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. His words, poignant in 1967 I’m sure, continue to hold weight today. He said, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” A speech filled with powerful and poetic prose, this statement struck me all the more as I was sitting in our small classroom on the education floor of OSP. King’s words about structures of inequality ring true in the face of continued discrimination and poverty. However, he also offers powerful words of advice: compassion, when it is neither haphazard nor superficial, has the real potential to be a revolutionary force. It’s not entirely clear to me what this looks like in concrete terms on a societal level, but I think his words remain a compass for informing our mindsets and our decisions.


Inside-Out Alumna