by Michelle Alexander

For the past several years, I have spent virtually all my working hours writing about or speaking about the immorality, cruelty, racism and insanity of our nation’s latest caste system: mass incarceration. On this Facebook page I have written and posted about little else. But as I pause today to reflect on the meaning and significance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I realize that my focus has been too narrow.

Michelle Alexander graphic, webFive years after the March, Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America’s militarism and imperialism – famously stating that our nation was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad and the utter indifference we have for poor people and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and will reward greed, hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage. Five years after the March on Washington, Dr. King was ignoring all those who told him to just stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights.

Yet here I am decades later, staying in my lane. I have not been speaking publicly about the relationship between drones abroad and the War on Drugs at home. I have not been talking about the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas and forecloses on homes with zeal, all while private prisons yield high returns and expand operations into a new market: caging immigrants. I have not been connecting the dots between the NSA spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as “terrorist organizations” and the spy programs of the 1960s and ‘70s – specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs that placed civil rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated civil rights organizations and assassinated racial justice leaders.

I have been staying in my lane. But no more. In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after. In the years that followed, he did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars of justice. Instead he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order, so that the dream he preached in 1963 might one day be a reality for all. He said that nothing less than “a radical restructuring of society” could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. He was right.

I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will be born again, all because we did not do what King demanded we do: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.

This statement was posted by Michelle Alexander to her Facebook page on Aug. 28, 2013.



  1. Great Michelle we need more people like you to get of their lanes and then maybe we can have an effective movement and mobilization of our people. I am proud of you and maybe I will bump into in the wrong lane. Peace Sister!!

  2. Thank you for sharing your realisation that only each of us who are awake can shake others into seeing the entire fight ahead. Bless you for choosing to change and for the lives you will change.

  3. Michelle, was so inspiring hearing you at CCDA and even more so i think reading this piece – the phrase "such a time as this" comes to mind and i imagine you have it in your sights and so i just want to encourage you to go for it and trust the crowds will follow and be walking alongside you…

    strength in Him
    love brett fish

  4. Dear Sister Alexander: Your writing caused me to remember Lewis Michaux's Bookstore in Harlem. It was the "House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda" on 125th Street and 7th Avenue. It was the place where we went to feed our spirits and gain new insights into the world around us. Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell spoke on the platform in front of the store. It was a place where we could read and grow and find ourselves and each other. It was a place where the "House Negroes" and the "Field Negroes" would come together and compare notes. There were always different approaches to the burden of being four or five generations away from slavery. Economic solutions must capture the vitality and the imagination of the young. For our strategic plans to become action plans, we must teach our children how to read, to understand fasting and physics and how to think critically. Your writing also made me think about the importance of sharing what is on our minds with the others and doing so without shame or reluctance. These are terrible times. The drones of ignorance and incompetence are everywhere. It is a difficult situation to find more African American men in prison than in college. I am sitting from a perch where the road behind is quite different than the road ahead. The future will mean that we speak two or three languages and that we treat people with the respect that our parents taught us to share. There is a tendency to think about a technology-inspired world, with all of the Ipads and Ipods and wireless connectivity and rapid access. Our truth lies in our ability to grow our own food, to acquire our own water, to maintain our own rhythm, to pray to our God every day and to make our health a valuable asset in our culture. You are standing a post, Michelle Alexander, like I am standing mine. Your message caught me – from one post to another. It is good for us to talk this way – lest we forget that we always had a talking drum. We have to find the pathway and help our children grow and become who they inspire themselves to be. Western man had not arrived yet. The talking drum was the first wireless communication – and you had to be able to read sign to appreciate the message in the words. Be well, Sister Alexander. God grant you the peace and tranquility of the deep pool of water that you are. And you don't have to signal to change lanes.

    • Dear Paul Simms, just wanted to say 'awesome' mind and spirit. It seems God has granted you power of sight and truth- I intend to find you personally so work can be committed to the saints. Thanks for your insight and support of this God sent sister. Kenneth Thompson aka KAMALLADEEN

  5. I have been studying the connections between foreign and domestic policy for some time now, and all I can say is that you are absolutely correct. We use wars abroad to open up new markets for domestic corporations, which take jobs away from people here while exploiting less-organized or protected populations elsewhere. Then we turn around and use war as a justification to spy on, repress, harass, jail, and torture domestic dissenters. The system is a big feedback loop that perpetuates itself. I hope that more people who are as intelligent and influential as you are continue drawing these connections and encouraging people to see the need for a total restructuring of society.

  6. Halleluyah and amén! That is the Truth! It's all one big system and as MLK said, as long as one is oppressed, we all are. Have you not seen how all of us are being turned into fodder for wars or prisons? A middle class for most of us? It's gone, with the jobs, affordable housing, pension plans, safety net and hope. Instead of government of the people for the people, we have a war system for the transnationals by the 10% elite. Plutocracy, oligarchy, other good, old-fashioned words for "We, the People, need to take back the USA!" and not by cutting government and rewarding the rich. Let's get together. Thanks for coming out, Michelle Alexander.

  7. To Michelle and Bill (Moyers) from David Eberhardt, 33 years at the Baltimore City Jail, now retired, Director of Offender Aid and Restoration- ex felon pardoned by Reagan- poured blood on draft files to protest the Vietnam War with Father Phil Berrigan resulting in 21 months at Lewisburg Federal Prison- also worked with two national prison reform, alternatives to prison organizations in Wash., DC.

    I applaud your program and ideas on the new Jim Crow, and the efforts of Susan Burton in LA. The organization I directed is based on volunteerism- aid to prisoners in jail and upon release- and there are still several OAR offices. There are hundreds of efforts similar to Ms Burton’s- one- Prisoners’ Aid here in Baltimore closed after over 100 years due to corruption.

    It’s all a drop in the bucket- but we who love our fellows are not going to give up. I was paid by the City of Baltimore and the State of Md., and actually have a pension!!!

    A couple of observations: It seemed that you were not aware of the long history of prison reform efforts.

    One word never mentioned? Capitalism. How are you going to reform a system maintained by capitalism, to divide the poor as you well said, and also to feather its own prison industry? Corrections is big business (as was cotton).

    But how are you going to reform it without mentioning the revolutionary left? I sensed a strain from you- going to such lengths to avoid this gorilla in the room. You mention needing a moral consensus?

    I’d say a change of systems- and of course, my preference is for a non violent change, but I am not rigid. Is it that you want to sell books that you cannot be honest about this?

    I’m basically in your corner, but not happy with naivete.

  8. So fluid, so direct, and perfectly everything that I am not. People, please, please listen to me. If there is any chance I could have a sit down face-to-face conversation with Ms. Sullivan I'd call it my Make-A-Wish adult dream. For me it would be my last ditched effort for the road has been long and I am tired. Lord or Benefactor let it be so, in Jesus' name I pray. Amen

  9. “a radical restructuring of society” is the only way to change the abusive structures that we call our society. Paolo Freire has simply laid out why none of our movement bear fruit in his little book "The pedagogy of the oppressed" in which he analyzes the systems that are used to oppress and the mind control that results; unless the oppressed reject their oppressors world view and cultivate and are committed to a world view that is a reflection of the world they want to create nothing changes. In fact things get worse.

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