Black History Month: Leading the Fight for a Real Criminal Justice System
For centuries, black people have endured the brutal violence of racism and shouldered the burden of leading the fight against it. This fight includes fixing our criminal legal system, which is racist at its core, and anything but fair. The nation falls far short of a real “criminal justice” system.
Incarceration rates are proof of this. Though black people comprised just 14 percent of the state’s population in 2014, they made up 54 percent of the prison population. Our state lawmakers add, on average each year, about 40 new ways a person can be charged with a crime. This includes relying on lengthy sentences yet failing to address the complicated causes that are also rooted in racism, such as access to education, housing and job opportunities. As a result, Michigan suffers one of the longest averages for time served in the United States.
The data is chilling but the cost is all too human. Countless black families have loved ones locked behind bars. Black parents and their children have been ripped apart. They are casualties of a destructive system. We can only end this issue with an unflinching attack on high incarceration rates, as well as the racism that drives it. This is the aim of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.
During Black History Month, we celebrate those who have used the injustice in their own lives to fuel their resolve and empower others. We honor the people, past and present, who have led the fight to end racism in all facets. From life in prison to community leadership. From jails to judges. From substance abuse to sentencing reform.
Michigan needs comprehensive criminal justice reform and it will only happen because of the leadership and work of the communities most impacted.
Chokwe Lumumba, born Edwin Taliaferro, was a trailblazing civil rights lawyer that fought for America’s poorest and most vulnerable, from Michigan to Mississippi.
Born in the public housing projects of Detroit’s West Side in the 1940s, he witnessed police brutality and racism from educators, neighbors and law enforcement. This propelled his activism at a young age, fighting against black discrimination and taking on white power structures through college.
At Wayne State Law School, he fought to change the school’s discriminatory grading system that initially resulted in 75% of black students in his class receiving failing grades. His victory resulted in honors for his classmates.
During his legal career, Lumumba drew on his experiences to take on racist institutions. As a staff attorney with the Detroit Public Defender’s Office, Lumumba provided free counsel to indigent clients during their criminal cases. They included Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who spent 27 years wrongfully imprisoned, as well as Assata Shakur and the late Tupac Shakur.
One of Lumumba’s most memorable cases was the defense one of the “Pontiac Sixteen,” who faced murder charges and a possible death sentence following a prison protest against unsanitary prison conditions and guard brutality.
In the late 80s, Lumumba moved to Jackson, Mississippi. He was integral in combating racism in Jackson’s public schools and curbing gang violence. He was elected to the City Council in 2009 and as Mayor in 2013, which his where he served until his death in 2014.
“When it comes to the discussion of oppression in America, we've been experiencing the worst of it for a long time. What's exciting to me is the prospect of going from worst to first in a forward-moving transformation which is going to take groups of dispossessed black folks here and others and make us controllers of our own destiny.”
In the face of daunting odds, Chokwe Lumumba's resilience and empathy provides a template for criminal justice advocates today.
Cora Mae Brown
At eight-years-old, Cora Mae Brown moved from Alabama to Detroit and grew to lead political movements for equity and criminal justice reform. In 1952, Brown became the first woman, and first black woman, to be elected to a state Senate, serving in Michigan.
A lifelong social justice advocate, Brown experienced racial discrimination as an elementary school student in Detroit. In 1931, she graduated from Cass Tech High School and then attended Fisk University in Nashville. There as a college student, when a young black man accused of rape in Tennessee was lynched in 1933, Brown became very involved in a demonstration and political movements on campus. Later in 1956, the Detroit Free Press noted that Brown’s involvement in that demonstration launched her life’s work against injustice and inhumanity.
After graduating from Fisk University with a degree in social work, Brown returned to Detroit as a social worker, including with the Women’s Division of the Police Department. Later she became a policewoman for the Detroit Police Department from 1941 to 1946.
Preparing legal cases at work inspired Brown to study law. And in 1948, Brown earned a law degree from Wayne State University, then explored running for public office. Four years later, Brown became the first black woman elected to the Michigan Senate. Throughout her two terms, Brown was a pioneer in civil rights. She supported legislation for fair housing and equal employment.
When she ran for Congress and lost in 1956, Brown was appointed Special Associate General Counsel of the U.S. Post Office one year later. Thereafter, she served as executive director of the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, which was formed to ensure that private firms contracting with the government complied with fair employment practices.
A social worker, lawyer and politician, Cora Mae Brown was diligent, battling injustice in each community she served.
In response to her election in 1952, Brown told the Detroit News: “These women voters have awakened and they expect their views to be properly represented. Women have always been able to bring sound and humane reasoning into everyday life. I believe they are the hope of the country.”