Time to Finish the Liberation of the South
There is a new South in America. It is the South of CNN, of the Atlanta Olympics, of German carmakers in South Carolina. It is the South of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, neither of whom would have been elected president if not for the end of segregation. But across the South, much of its potential is locked up�literally.
Consider Alabama. Montgomery was the scene of the first stirrings of the civil rights movement, triggered when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of that bus. Now, almost 50 years later, the promise of Alabama needs to be unlocked. In the past 30 years, Alabama's population has increased 30 percent, while its prison population has increased 600 percent. Alabama incarcerates people at five times the rate of the national average. There are more than 27,000 prisoners in Alabama today, with a prison budget totaling more than $200 million a year. More than two-thirds of those prisoners are African-American. Four out of five prisoners (84 percent) committed nonviolent offenses. This jail-care policy has stripped 240,000 Alabama residents of the right to vote. Fourteen percent of the voting-age population of African-Americans is disenfranchised. Lock them up to lock them out. The drug war has replaced the poll tax as the way to keep African-Americans from voting. Incarcerating people for nonviolent offenses, particularly drug crimes, increases the discretion exercised by police, prosecutors and judges. They can decide who gets arrested and who gets a warning; who gets charged with a felony and who gets a deal; who goes to jail and who walks.
In this system, none of Alabama�s appellate court judges is African-American. Only 16 of 220 judges in Alabama are black. None of the district attorneys is black, and only eight of 67 sheriffs are. The back of the cell has replaced the back of the bus. Alabama's prison habit is expensive. The prison budget is higher than the state education budget. In 2000, tuition at the University of Alabama was $3,300 a year. It costs almost three times that�$9,000�to incarcerate an inmate for a year. But the number of African-American prisoners in Alabama exceeds the number of African-American college students.
Priorities have consequences. In the modern economy, what you learn has a huge effect on what you earn. Spending more on prisons than on schools is a recipe for poverty, and Alabama is poor. One out of every four children lives in poverty. One-third of the people live in poverty�and 44 percent of African-Americans. These are not lazy people, since one-third of the jobs in Alabama are at the poverty level or below. You can work full-time in Alabama and stay poor.
When the Montgomery bus boycott took place, the cynics said nothing would or could change in the South. The segregationists controlled the scene�the statehouse, the legislature the local officials. But Dr. King showed that a people who would rather walk in pride than ride in shame could change the world.
It is time to go back to the South. It is time to enlist the New South against the remnants of the old. Pitch the South of opportunity and diversity against the South of reaction; champion books over bars and schools over prisons. It is time to register people to vote and to challenge the laws that would strip citizens of the right to vote for committing crimes even after they have repaid their debt to society.
At the national level, pundits tend to write off the South as a Republican bastion. They say national elections will be decided in the contested industrial states of the Midwest and the go-go states of the Southwest. Bush spends his time traveling to Pennsylvania and Ohio, not to Alabama and Georgia. Indeed, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he predicted that Democrats would lose the South for a generation. And starting with Nixon, Republicans practiced a race-bait politics that made their party the party of white sanctuary in the South.
Now, however, a generation has passed. A New South is growing. Immigrants have brought a new diversity, beyond the black-white tensions. Workers�including white workers�realize that the region�s poverty drags down everyone. You can't lock up hope forever. It is time for a new citizens� movement to register people to vote, build alliances across lines of race and finish the liberation of the South.
By Jesse Jackson