“I no longer believe we can ‘win’ justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power…This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.”
— Michelle Alexander
In September of 2016, Michelle Alexander resigned from her position as a professor of law at the Ohio State University to teach and study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Despite her triumphs in the world of politics, the highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and author of The New Jim Crow, has chosen to abandon 20 years of legislative experience believing that the fight for justice cannot be won without faith.
To be human is to be a creature of habit, it means that we are attracted to what is familiar, that we resent the uncertainty and discomfort of change. However, there are times when change is necessary. There are instances of personal and collective revolution in which we must challenge all that is familiar and go a different path. Michelle Alexander has chosen to do just that. Yet, while her decision is contemporarily bold and inspiring, what she has discovered is in fact, an old truth. For more than 50 years, America has closely associated civil rights with the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but we often fail to recognize his unyielding dependency on Christian idealism. Contrary to popular belief, the success of the civil rights movement was not simply the result of non-violent marches, rallies, and boycotts. Its success was rooted in unwavering hope and love. King clearly understood that his vision for America could not be achieved without interrogating the nation’s moral conscious. For that reason, he demanded that we “look deep down within every man and see within him something of Godliness.” His efforts did not aim to unify people under race, religion or ideology but under our shared humanity.
Although America has progressed since the civil rights era, it is a mistake to believe that we have achieved King’s vision of racial equality. Our Criminal Justice System has perpetually demonstrated a disdain for black life, to the extent that there is seemingly no situation in which black people can avoid being shot by police. Acquittals of officers on trial for unjust shootings have become the expectation. Furthermore, convictions have been replaced by lawsuit settlements and undisclosed sums paid to broken black families. There are over 21 cases within the last 18 years in which cops were not held accountable for the death of black victims. These victims include men, women, and children. Such a lack of victories has caused many to lose hope and the myriad of “not guilty” verdicts amongst these cases suggest that proving an officer’s racial bias is impossible.
However, there is one particular case that somehow managed to escape this egregious list. On April 4, 2015, Walter Scott was fatally shot by Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina, following a daytime traffic stop for a broken brake light. In December of 2016, the murder trial of Officer Slager was ruled a mistrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict. Following the court’s decision, Walter Scott’s mother told reporters that she would not be discouraged.
On May 2, 2017, Slager admitted in court that he did not shoot Scott in self-defense and that his use of force was unreasonable. Consequently, Slager pled guilty to a federal charge of deprivation of civil rights and currently awaits sentencing. His offense has a maximum penalty of life in prison. While this case may appear to be an anomaly, Scott’s mother would likely contribute its result to her faith in God. Today, one might ask: Where are our faith leaders? What has happened to the religious intellectuals, the thinkers taken seriously by nonbelievers as well as believers? Sadly, there will never be another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., however, clergy and social justice advocates alike, are beginning to realize the imminent role of faith in politics, the inseparable marriage between salvation and civil rights. Perhaps soon enough we will come to understand that the justice we so desperately seek is not in a courtroom or a dollar amount, but in something greater, something bigger than ourselves.