Friday, December 27, 2013


Please Note: The following list of books is not organized according to any personal hierarchy of the relative value of each individual book. Rather it is a list that seriously considers ALL of the books listed here to be of equal intellectual and cultural value and interest, albeit for different reasons. The bottomline on this list is that each one of these books is extraordinary and invaluable in their own right and represents some of the very best writing published in the United States in 2013.
--Kofi Natambu, Editor

Harlem Nocturne:  Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II
by Farah Jasmine Griffin
Basic Civitas,  2013

The Amazing Bud Powell:  Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop
by Guthrie P. Ramsey
University of California Press,  2013

I Am Malala:  The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai  (with Christina Lamb)
Little Brown and Company,  2013

Fear Itself:  The New Deal and the Origins Of Our Time
by Ira Katznelson
 W.W. Norton & Company  (Liveright Publishing Corporation), 2013

Mingus Speaks
by John F. Goodman
University of California Press,  2013

Paul Robeson:  A Watched Man
by Jordan Goodman
Verso, 2013

The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks
by Jeanne Theoharis
Beacon Press,  2013

Kansas City Lightning:  The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
by Stanley Crouch
Harper, 2013

Black Against Empire:  The History And Politics Of The Black Panther Party
by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.
University of California Press, 2013
Mo' Meta Blues:  The World According To Questlove
by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson  (with Ben Greenman)
Grand Central Publishing,  2013
Toussaint Louverture:  The Story of The Only Successful Slave Revolt In History  (A Play in Three Acts)
by C.L.R. James
Duke University Press,  2013 

Remembering Medgar Evers:  Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement
by Minrose Gwin
University of Georgia Press,  2013

Told You So:  The Big Book Of Weekly Columns
by Ralph Nader
Seven Stories Press, 2013

FOR Discrimination:  Race, Affirmative Action, and The Law
by Randall Kennedy
Pantheon Books,  2013
Ebony & Ivy:  Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities
by Craig Steven Wilder

Eslanda:  The Large And Unconventional Life Of Mrs. Paul Robeson
by Barbara Ransby
Yale University Press,  2013

Blacks In and Out Of The Left
by Michael C. Dawson
Harvard University Press,  2013
Hate Thy Neighbor:  Move-in Violence and the Persistence Of Racial Segregation In American Housing
by Jeannine Bell
New York University Press,  2013
 A Black Revolutionary's Life in Labor:  Black Workers Power in Detroit
by Michael Hamlin  (with Michele Gibbs)
Against the Tide,  2013
The American Way of Poverty:  How The Other Half Still Lives
by Sasha Abramsky
Nation Books,  2013 


Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela
by Danny Schechter  
Seven Stories Press,  2013

Bending Toward Justice:  The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy
by Gary May 
Basic Books,  2013

The Baroness:  The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild
by Hannah Rothschild
Alfred A. Knopf,  2013
My Beloved World
by Sonia Sotomayor
Alfred A. Knopf,  2013

March On Washington:  Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights
by William P. Jones
W.W. Norton.  2013

Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement
by J. Todd Moye
Rowman & Littlefield  (The Library of African American Biography),  2013

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Yusef Lateef, 1920-2013: Innovative Multi-instrumentalist, Composer, and Teacher

Yusef Lateef in April. He sought inspriation well beyond the Western Hemisphere and anticipated cross-cultural fusions.   Alan Nahigian

December 24, 2013
New York Times

Yusef Lateef, a jazz saxophonist and flutist who spent his career crossing musical boundaries, died on Monday at his home in Shutesbury, Mass., near Amherst. He was 93.

His death was announced on his website.

Mr. Lateef started out as a tenor saxophonist with a big tone and a bluesy style, not significantly more or less talented than numerous other saxophonists in the crowded jazz scene of the 1940s. He served a conventional jazz apprenticeship, working in the bands of Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie and others. But by the time he made his first records as a leader, in 1957, he had begun establishing a reputation as a decidedly unconventional musician.

He began expanding his instrumental palette by doubling on flute, by no means a common jazz instrument in those years. He later added oboe, bassoon and non-Western wind instruments like the shehnai and arghul. “My attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played by the same old horns,” he once told DownBeat magazine. “When I looked into those other cultures, I found that good instruments existed there.”

Those experiments led to an embrace of new influences. At a time when jazz musicians in the United States rarely sought inspiration any farther geographically than Latin America, Mr. Lateef looked well beyond the Western Hemisphere. Anticipating the cross-cultural fusions of later decades, he flavored his music with scales, drones and percussion effects borrowed from Asia and the Middle East. He played world music before world music had a name.

In later years he incorporated elements of contemporary concert music and composed symphonic and chamber works. African influences became more noticeable in his music when he spent four years studying and teaching in Nigeria in the early 1980s.

Mr. Lateef professed to find the word “jazz” limiting and degrading; he preferred “autophysiopsychic music,” a term he invented. He further distanced himself from the jazz mainstream in 1980 when he declared that he would no longer perform any place where alcohol was served. “Too much blood, sweat and tears have been spilled creating this music to play it where people are smoking, drinking and talking,” he explained to The Boston Globe in 1999.

Still, with its emphasis on melodic improvisation and rhythmic immediacy, his music was always recognizably jazz at its core. And as far afield as his music might roam, his repertoire usually included at least a few Tin Pan Alley standards and, especially, plenty of blues.

He was born on Oct. 9, 1920, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Many sources give his birth name as William Evans, the name under which he performed and recorded before converting to Islam in the late 1940s (he belonged to the reformist Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) and changing his name to Yusef Abdul Lateef. But according to Mr. Lateef’s website, he was born William Emanuel Huddleston.

When he was 5 his family moved to Detroit, where he went on to study saxophone at Miller High School. After spending most of the 1940s on the road as a sideman with various big bands, he returned to Detroit in 1950 to care for his ailing wife and ended up staying for a decade.

While in Detroit he became a popular and respected fixture on the local nightclub scene and a mentor to younger musicians. He also resumed his studies, taking courses in flute and composition at Wayne State University and later studying oboe as well.

In the later part of the decade he began traveling regularly from Detroit to the East Coast with his working band to record for the Savoy and Prestige labels. By 1960 he had settled in New York, where he worked with Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley and the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji before forming his own quartet in 1964.

He was soon a bona fide jazz star, with successful albums on the Impulse and Atlantic labels and a busy touring schedule. But he also remained a student, and he eventually became a teacher as well.

He received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, and taught both there and at Borough of Manhattan Community College in the 1970s. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1975 (his dissertation: “An Overview of Western and Islamic Education”) and later taught there and elsewhere in New England.

The more he studied, the more ambitious Mr. Lateef grew as a composer. He recorded his seven-movement “Symphonic Blues Suite” in 1970 and his “African-American Epic Suite,” a four-part work for quintet and orchestra, two decades later. His album “Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony,” on which he played all the instruments via overdubbing, won a Grammy Award in 1988, though not in any of the jazz or classical categories; it was named best New Age performance. Mr. Lateef said at the time that, while he was grateful for the award, he didn’t know what New Age music was.

In 2010 he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mr. Lateef is survived by his wife, Ayesha; a son, Yusef; a granddaughter; and several great-grandchildren. His first wife, Tahira, died before him, as did a son and a daughter.

His creative output was not limited to music. He painted, wrote poetry and published several books of fiction. He also ran his own record company, YAL, which he established in 1992.

He remained musically active until a few months before his death. In April he appeared at Roulette in Brooklyn in a program titled “Yusef Lateef: Celebrating 75 Years of Music,” performing with the percussionist Adam Rudolph and presenting the premieres of two works, one for string quartet and the other for piano.

Yusef Lateef
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Background information

Birth name    William Emanuel Huddleston
Also known as    Yusef Lateef
Born    October 9, 1920
Chattanooga, Tennessee
United States
Died    December 23, 2013 (aged 93)
Shutesbury, Massachusetts
United States
Genres    New Age music, jazz, post-bop, jazz fusion, swing, hard bop, third stream, autophysiopsychic music, world music
Occupations    Musician, composer, educator, spokesman, author
Instruments    Tenor saxophone, flute, oboe, bassoon, bamboo flute, shehnai, shofar, arghul, koto
Years active    1957 – 2013
Labels    Savoy, Prestige, Verve, Riverside, Impulse, Atlantic, CTI, YAL Records
Associated acts    Cannonball Adderley, Elvin Jones, Adam Rudolph, Dizzy Gillespie, Curtis Fuller, Grant Green, Donald Byrd, Art Farmer


Yusef Abdul Lateef (born William Emanuel Huddleston, October 9, 1920 – December 23, 2013) was an American jazz multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community after his conversion to the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam in 1950.

Although Lateef's main instruments were the tenor saxophone and flute, he also played oboe and bassoon, both rare in jazz, and also used a number of non-western instruments such as the bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, xun, arghul and koto. He is known for having been an innovator in the blending of jazz with "Eastern" music.[1]

Peter Keepnews, in his New York Times obituary of Lateef, wrote that the musician "played world music before world music had a name."[2]

Lateef performing in 2007 at the Detroit Jazz Festival


1 Biography
1.1 Early life and career
1.2 Prominence
1.3 Later career
2 Educator
3 Awards and honors
4 Discography
4.1 As leader
4.2 As sideman
5 References
6 External links


Early life and career

Lateef was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His family moved, in 1923, to Lorain, Ohio and again in 1925, to Detroit, Michigan, where his father changed the family's name to "Evans".

Throughout his early life Lateef came into contact with many Detroit-based jazz musicians who went on to gain prominence, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Elvin Jones and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Lateef was a proficient saxophonist by the time of his graduation from high school at the age of 18, when he launched his professional career and began touring with a number of swing bands.

In 1949, he was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to tour with his orchestra. In 1950, Lateef returned to Detroit and began his studies in composition and flute at Wayne State University. It was during this period that he converted to Islam as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.[3]


Lateef began recording as a leader in 1957 for Savoy Records, a non-exclusive association which continued until 1959; the earliest of Lateef's album's for the Prestige subsidiary New Jazz overlap with them. Musicians such as Wilbur Harden (trumpet, flugelhorn), bassist Herman Wright, drummer Frank Gant, and pianist Hugh Lawson were among his collaborators during this period.

By 1961, with the recording of Into Something and Eastern Sounds, Lateef's dominant presence within a group context had emerged. His 'Eastern' influences are clearly audible in all of these recordings, with spots for instruments like the rahab, shanai, arghul, koto and a collection of Chinese wooden flutes and bells along with his tenor and flute. Even his use of the western oboe sounds exotic in this context; it is not a standard jazz instrument. Indeed the tunes themselves are a mixture of jazz standards, blues and film music usually performed with a piano/bass/drums rhythm section in support. Lateef made numerous contributions to other people's albums including his time as a member of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's Quintet during 1962–64.
Lateef's sound has been claimed to have been a major influence on the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose later period free jazz recordings contain similarly 'Eastern' traits. For a time (1963–66) Lateef was signed to Coltrane's label, Impulse. He had a regular working group during this period, with trumpeter Richard Williams and Mike Nock on piano.
In the late 1960s he began to incorporate contemporary soul and gospel phrasing into his music, still with a strong blues underlay, on albums such as Detroit and Hush'n'Thunder.

Lateef expressed a dislike of the terms "jazz" and "jazz musician" as musical generalizations. As is so often the case with such generalizations, the use of these terms do understate the breadth of his sound. For example, in the 1980s, Lateef experimented with new age and spiritual elements.

Later career

His 1987 album Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.[4][5] His core influences, however, were clearly rooted in jazz, and in his own words: "My music is jazz."[6]

In 1992, Lateef founded YAL Records, his own label for which he recorded until the end of his life. In 1993, Lateef was commissioned by the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne to compose The African American Epic Suite, a four-part work for orchestra and quartet based on themes of slavery and disfranchisement in the United States. The piece has since been performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Lateef died on the morning of December 23, 2013 at the age of 93 after suffering from prostate cancer.[7]


In 1960, Lateef again returned to school, studying flute at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He received a Bachelor's Degree in Music in 1969 and a Master's Degree in Music Education in 1970. Starting in 1971, he taught courses in autophysiopsychic music at the Manhattan School of Music, and he became an associate professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1972.

In 1975, Lateef completed his dissertation on Western and Islamic education and earned a Ed.D. in Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In the early 1980s Lateef was a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in the city of Zaria, Nigeria. Returning to the US in 1986 he took teaching positions at the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College. To the end of his life, he continued to teach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.
Lateef wrote and published a number of books including two novellas entitled A Night in the Garden of Love and Another Avenue, the short story collections Spheres and Rain Shapes, also his autobiography, The Gentle Giant, written in collaboration with Herb Boyd.[8]

Along with his record label YAL Records, Lateef owned Fana Music, a music publishing company. Lateef published his own work through Fana, which includes Yusef Lateef's Flute Book of the Blues and many of his own orchestral compositions.

Autophysiopsychic Music, Lateef's term, refers to music which comes from one's physical, mental, and spiritual self. Lateef wrote extensively on the topic and included it in his book Method To Perform Autophysiopsychic Music. In this view, it should be the goal of every musician to combine their theoretical knowledge with their life experience, and to offer to and accept knowledge from their personal source of strength, inspiration and knowledge.

Awards and honors

In 2010 he received lifetime the Jazz Master Fellowship Award from NEA, National Endowment for the Arts which is an independent federal agency.[9][5]

National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters is the highest honor given in Jazz established in 1982.[10]

WGBH Boston aired a special-documentary program for Lateef, titled A portrait of saxophonist Yusef Lateef in his own words and music.[11]

Manhattan School of Music, where Lateef earned a bachelor's and a master's degree, awarded him a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2012.


Lateef performing in Hamburg, 1971
As leader[edit]
Savoy 1957-1959
Jazz for the Thinker (1957)
Jazz Mood (1957)
Jazz and the Sounds of Nature (1957)
Prayer to the East (1957)
The Dreamer (1959)
The Fabric of Jazz (1959)
Impulse! 1963-1966
Jazz 'Round the World (1963)
Live at Pep's (1964)
1984 (1965)
Psychicemotus (1965)
A Flat, G Flat and C (1966)
The Golden Flute (1966)
Atlantic 1967 -1991
The Complete Yusef Lateef (1967)
The Blue Yusef Lateef (1968)
Yusef Lateef's Detroit (1969)
The Diverse Yusef Lateef (1969)
Suite 16 (1970)
The Gentle Giant (1971)
Hush 'N' Thunder (1972)
Part of the Search (1973)
10 Years Hence (1974)
The Doctor is In... and Out (1976)
Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony (1987)
Concerto for Yusef Lateef (1988)
Nocturnes (1989)
Meditations (1990)
Yusef Lateef's Encounters (1991)
YAL Records 1992-2002
Tenors of Yusef Lateef and Von Freeman (1992)
Heart Vision (1992)
Yusef Lateef Plays Ballads (1993)
Tenors of Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp (1993)
Woodwinds (1993)
Tenors of Yusef Lateef & Ricky Ford (1994)
Yusef Lateef's Fantasia for Flute (1996)
Full Circle (1996)
CHNOPS: Gold & Soul (1997)
Earth and Sky (1997)
9 Bagatelles (1998)
Like the Dust (1998)
Live at Luckman Theater (2001)
Earriptus (2001)
So Peace (2002)
A Tribute Concert for Yusef Lateef: YAL's 10th Anniversary (2002)
Meta Records
The World at Peace (1997)
Beyond the Sky (2000)
Go: Organic Orchestra: In the Garden (2003)
Towards the Unknown (2010)
Voice Prints (2013)
Other labels
Before Dawn: The Music of Yusef Lateef (Verve, 1957)
The Sounds of Yusef (Prestige, 1957)
Other Sounds (New Jazz, 1957)
Lateef at Cranbrook (Argo, 1958)
Cry! - Tender (New Jazz, 1959)
The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef (Riverside, 1960)
The Centaur and the Phoenix (Riverside, 1960)
Lost in Sound (Charlie Parker, 1961)
Eastern Sounds (Moodsville, 1961)
Into Something (New Jazz, 1961)
Autophysiopsychic (1977, CTI Records)
In a Temple Garden (1979, CTI Records)
Yusef Lateef in Nigeria (Landmark, 1983)
Influence with Lionel and Stéphane Belmondo (2005)
Roots Run Deep (Rogue Art, 2012)

As sideman

With Cannonball Adderley
The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York (Riverside, 1962)
Cannonball in Europe! (Riverside, 1962)
Jazz Workshop Revisited (Riverside, 1962)
Autumn Leaves (Riverside, 1963)
Nippon Soul (Riverside, 1963)
With Nat Adderley
That's Right! (Riverside, 1960)
With Ernestine Anderson
My Kinda Swing (1960)
With Art Blakey
The African Beat (1962)
With Donald Byrd
Byrd Jazz (Transition, 1955)
First Flight (1957)
With Paul Chambers
1st Bassman (1961)
With Art Farmer
Something You Got (CTI, 1977)
With Curtis Fuller
Images of Curtis Fuller (Savoy, 1960)
Boss of the Soul-Stream Trombone (Warwick, 1960)
Gettin' It Together (1961)
With Grant Green
Grantstand (Blue Note, 1961)
With Slide Hampton
Drum Suite (1962)
With Louis Hayes
Louis Hayes featuring Yusef Lateef & Nat Adderley (1960)
With Les McCann
Invitation to Openness (1972)
With Don McLean
Homeless Brother (1973)
With Charles Mingus
Pre-Bird (aka, Mingus Revisited, 1960)
With Babatunde Olatunji
Drums of Passion (1960)
With Sonny Red
Breezing (Jazzland, 1960)
With Leon Redbone
Double Time (Warner Bros., 1976)
With Clark Terry
Color Changes (1960)
With Doug Watkins
Soulnik (New Jazz, 1960)
With Randy Weston
Uhuru Afrika (Roulette, 1960)
With Frank Wess
Jazz Is Busting Out All Over (1957)


Jump up ^ Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians – Lateef, Yusef Abdul (William Evans). Retrieved 2013-04-06.
Jump up ^ Peter Keepnews "Yusef Lateef, Innovative Jazz Saxophonist and Flutist, Dies at 93", New York Times, 24 December 2013
Jump up ^ "About Yusef Lateef". FANA Music/YAL Records. Retrieved December 5, 2012.
Jump up ^ Lateef Wins Grammy Award For Best New Age Album in 1987. Retrieved 2010-11-11.
^ Jump up to: a b "About Yusef Lateef". Official website. 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2013.
Jump up ^ A Fireside Chat With Yusef Lateef
Jump up ^
Jump up ^ "Yusef Lateef Comes to Grace Cathedral". Retrieved 2010-11-11.
Jump up ^ "Lateef Being Honored With Jazz Master Fellowship Award in 2010". Retrieved 2010-11-10.
Jump up ^ "Jazz Master Fellowship Award Winners Through 1982–2011". Retrieved 2010-11-10.
Jump up ^ "A portrait of saxophonist Yusef Lateef in his Own Words And Music". Retrieved 2010-11-10.
External links[edit]

Yusef Lateef at AllMusic
Billboard Discography – Billboard's complete discography of Yusef Lateef
Jazz Portraits from the WGBH Archives: Yusef Lateef a radio documentary from WGBH Radio Boston

Lateef performing in 2007 at the Detroit Jazz Festival

Monday, December 23, 2013

Michelle Alexander On Mass Incarceration, the Criminal Justice System, and the Ongoing Racist Legacy of Jim Crow in the United States Today

Michelle Alexander on Bill Moyers:
Locked Out of the American Dream
22 December 2013
By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company | Video Interview

After civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander published her book The New Jim Crow in 2010 on our dehumanizing system of incarceration, she ignited a national conversation about justice in America and sparked a movement. In her book, Alexander explores how the war on drugs, “get-tough” sentencing policies and racism has created a caste system similar to that of our segregationist past.

Since then, Alexander has traveled the country to meet advocates and everyday Americans working to end mass incarceration in America — home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite representing only five percent of the world’s population.

She tells Bill that she has seen a grassroots movement brewing in communities across the country, “There are enormous victories that are being achieved precisely because the people whom we have written off and viewed as disposable are reclaiming their voice, standing up, speaking out, organizing even as they struggle to survive.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Last month in Sydney, Australia, they threw an annual event called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. One of the main speakers was David Simon, the writer and producer who created “The Wire” and “Treme,” two television series that vividly portray the vast gap between rich and poor. Nothing drives that great divide home, he said, like our prison system.

DAVID SIMON: You're seeing the underclass hunted through a war on dangerous drugs allegedly that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, at this point. In terms of just the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons […] No other country on the face of the earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

BILL MOYERS: He’s right, of course. During the past 30 years, the number of inmates in federal custody has grown by 800 percent, and half of them are serving sentences for drug offenses. According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group dedicated to changing how we think about crime and punishment, “more than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities.” This book woke people up. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. She was my guest more than three years ago when the book was first published.

An outstanding work of scholarship on how our war on drugs, our harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, and racism have converged to create a caste system in this country very much like the one under Jim Crow segregation laws. None of us at the time anticipated the powerful impact her book would have.

It became a best-seller, spurred an even wider conversation about justice and inequality, and transformed Michelle Alexander from attorney and professor to an activist and advocate for an end to our dehumanizing penal system.
Michelle Alexander, welcome.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: When the book came out one reviewer called it the bible of a social movement. Have you seen the apostles and the disciples and the church spreading? Have you seen the signs of a movement?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. And it has me so encouraged. As I travel from city to city, and I've been speaking in churches and at universities, I've been speaking inside prisons and reentry centers, just an incredible range of venues, I see over and over again people who are dedicating their lives now to ending the system of mass incarceration, to raising consciousness. People of faith who are organizing their church communities, organizing within mosques, holding study circles, holding film festivals and then organizing and mobilizing their memberships. Or their congregations.

I'm especially encouraged by formerly incarcerated people who are finding their voice and organizing to man the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. Organizations like All of Us or None which has successfully, you know, achieve Ban the Box legislation.

BILL MOYERS: Ban the Box?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Ban the Box on employment applications, the, you know, box on employment applications that asks that dreaded question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" And of course it doesn't matter whether you've been convicted of a felony a few weeks ago or 40 years ago, for the rest of your life, you're labeled a felon and then subject to legal discrimination, for the rest of your life.

BILL MOYERS: What do those ex-felons, what have they been telling you about what it's like to come out and try to get back into the society to which they have paid for their sins?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think it's just an extraordinary challenge. And I think most people have this sense that when you're released from prison, well, yeah, life is hard. But if you really dedicate yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you know, knock on enough doors, you'll get that job, you'll get your life back together. It may be hard but if you really try, you can do it.

But what I've learned, you know, over the years from working with many formerly incarcerated people, and forming close friendships with many people who have been released from prison, is that it's not just hard, it's often impossible. You're released from prison, often with, you know, maybe $20 in your pocket. Have nowhere to sleep.

You try to return home, maybe to your family who lives in public housing. Your family risks eviction in many places if they just even allow you to come home. Felons can be excluded from public housing. Whole families can risk eviction if they allow people with felonies to come home to them.

Trying to get a job can be next to impossible. You know, people say, "Well, they could get a job at, you know, Burger King or some, you know, minimum wage job." No actually, you know, many low-wage jobs are, for all practical purposes, off-limits to people who have felonies. Hundreds of professional licenses are off-limits to people who have felonies.

In my state in Ohio, until just recently, you couldn't even get a license to be a barber if you'd been convicted of a felony. Food stamps may be off-limits to you if you've been convicted of a drug felony. You know, what are people released from prison expected to do? Apparently what we expect them to do is to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulative back child support, which continues to accrue while you're in prison.

And in a growing number of states you're actually expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment. And paying back all these fees, fines and court costs may be a condition of your probation or parole. And then if you're one of the lucky few, the very few who even manages to get a job straight out of prison, up to 100 percent of your wages can be garnished to pay back all those fees, fines, court costs.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain this, given the fact that this is a society that celebrates second chances, for politicians in particular, a society that is built around the theme of renewal, born again and yet, doesn't extend that same act of forgiveness to people who have paid for their sins.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, we say we're a society that supports second chances. But in reality, we're not. And I think the reason-- to fully understand what's happened in this country, with respect to mass incarceration, you have to look back at least 40 years to the law and order movement that was born in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.

You know, when Civil Rights advocates were beginning to violate segregation laws and sit-in at lunch counters and desegregate trains and busses violating what they believed were unjust laws-- segregationists said, you know, "This is leading to the breakdown of the respect for law. We need law and order in this country." And the call for law and order was in direct response to the Civil Rights movement and the non-violent, civil disobedience the protesters were engaged in.

But this law and order movement began to take on a life of its own as crime rates began to rise in urban areas and some politicians began to say, you know, "This rise in crime is a symptom of this attitude of lawlessness that is spreading through the nation. We need to get tough. We need to crack down. We need law and order."

And as I've documented at great lengths in the book, and many other political scientists and historians have as well, the get tough movement and the war on drugs really is traceable to a backlash against the gains of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement and a radical shift in mentality that occurred where as a nation we ended the war on poverty and declared the war on drugs. A wave of punitiveness really swept the nation on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. And this attitude-- has infected not only our criminal justice system but our education system that now has a zero tolerance policy for school discipline infractions. And has led to this prison building boom unlike anything the world has ever seen.

BILL MOYERS: How have mandatory minimum sentences contributed to that?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, mandatory minimum sentences ensures that you will get the harshest possible sentence under law. The mandatory minimum sentence. And so it shifts power to the prosecutor so the prosecutors can then say to you, "Well, you take this plea or else you're going to get this harsh mandatory minimum sentence." And it gives prosecutors the power to, you know, encourage plea deals, you know, in a federal system. I think 97 to 98 percent of all, you know, charged cases result in a plea, not a trial because people are terrified of facing these harsh mandatory minimum sentences. And it ensures that it's up to the prosecutor, not the judge, you know, what kind of sentence you receive. And mandatory minimum sentences has a lot to do with the exponential increase in our prison population in the United States.

And today, you know, even in this era of Obama, in this time of supposed-color blindness, we now have created a system of mass incarceration, a penal system unprecedented in world history. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly-repressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran. And the majority of the increase in incarceration in the United States have been among impoverished people of color who, once they're swept into the system, are then stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement. And yet, the topic of mass incarceration has been one, you know, that has been rarely raised.

BILL MOYERS: Is there research that confirms that the backlash is against black criminals or against criminals, just crime?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, there is. There's an enormous amount of research that suggests that the backlash and the punitive impulse was not simply in response to crime but was much more deeply connected to racial attitudes, racial fears and anxieties. And in fact, you know, the political strategist who conceived of the get tough movement and the war on drugs quite deliberately used not so subtle racial appeals and racial code language with the purpose of trying to exploit both conscious and unconscious racial biases and stereotypes for political gain. The Southern strategy.

BILL MOYERS: By which Richard Nixon was elected president.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes. The basis of the Southern strategy was using these kind of racially coded get tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working class whites particularly in the South who were anxious about, threatened by, resentful of many of the gains of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement.

And to be fair, I think we have got to acknowledge that poor and working class whites really had their world rocked by the Civil Rights movement. You know, wealthy whites could send their kids to private schools, give their kids all of the advantages that wealth has to offer. But poor and working class whites in the South, many of whom were themselves struggling for survival, who are desperately poor, often illiterate. They were the ones who might have to ship their kids across town to go to a school they believed were inferior. It was they who were suddenly forced to compete on equal times for limited jobs with this whole group of people they've been taught their whole lives to believe were inferior to them. And this state of affairs did create an enormous amount of fear, resentment and anxiety and an enormous political opportunity.

BILL MOYERS: What about now? How do you see that playing out?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I see it most obviously in the immigration debate. Today we see that this fear of immigrants coming across the border to take jobs and to take educational resources and who are going to drain the tax base of your county. These fears that they are coming to take from you is leading and has led to another for get tough movement. Get tough on them, those immigrants who have violated the law by crossing over. And this wave of punitiveness now directed towards immigrants is leading to the same kind of indifference towards their basic humanity that we have seen in the war on drugs and the get tough movement that led to the rise of mass incarceration. I mean, race has been used as a wedge again and again throughout American history to divide the lower classes, if you will. And to create an environment in which poor and working class people are pit against one another.

But that does not mean that, you know, all or even most poor or working class white folks are harboring any conscious racial resentments. I know that there are those folks out there, for sure. But I think much of it lies in the unconscious, stereotypes and fears and biases that we all have within us that get exploited in these moments where groups are scapegoated and fears are stoked, resulting in, you know, the emergence of these new systems. I mean, we are having mass deportation today at the same time as we are having mass incarceration.

BILL MOYERS: Mass deportation, I must say, by a black president.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. It's one of the great ironies. Just as it's, you know, an irony that the greatest escalation of the drug war was under President Clinton who, you know, many African-Americans called our first black president.

BILL MOYERS: I remember that.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And it was President Clinton, you know, a Democrat, who escalated the drug war far beyond what President Reagan or President Nixon had even dreamed possible. And it was the Clinton administration that championed laws banning drug offenders even from federal financial aid for schooling upon their release. Banning drug offenders and people with criminal convictions from, you know, public housing. You know, to a large extent many of the rules, laws, policies and practices that now constitute this caste-like system were championed by a Democratic president administration desperate to win back those so-called white swing voters. The folks who had defected from the Democratic party in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.

BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you what do you think is the dynamic that drove Clinton and now drives Obama? Is it to satisfy the base they think most hostile to them?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think so. And, you know, what I find most unfortunate though, of the politics that have developed over the years, the politics of trying to appease, you know, poor and working class whites not by building explicitly multiracial, multi-ethnic, you know, coalitions and alliances that encourage solidarity across racial and class lines. But instead by kind of tossing these symbolic bones, you know, saying, "Well, we're escalating the drug war. We're getting tough on them. Don't you feel better now? We're willing to get tough by deporting even more immigrants than ever have been deported before. Don't you feel better now?"

We fall into the trap of really playing to people's, you know, baser fears and instincts rather than risking perhaps some short-term losses, but building the kind of unity and the kind of solidarity across race and class lines which I believe would help to ensure a much more stable foundation for the kind of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, inclusive democracy that I would hope for. Which is why my great hope does not lie with President Obama or our elected politicians no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned they may be.

BILL MOYERS: You have talked recently in a way different from how you were talking three and a half years ago. You've been talking about moving out of your own lane. What are you suggesting?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, well, you know, right around the anniversary of the march on Washington I found myself doing a fair amount of internal reflection about my own role at this time in building the kind of movement that I would hope for, for social justice.

And what I had to admit to myself is that for the last few years, you know, I have spent all of my working hours talking about mass incarceration and trying to raise consciousness about what has happened in this country, how we've managed to birth a caste-like system again. You know, that there are more African-Americans under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.

That we've created this vast new system again. And to try to raise consciousness so that people would wake up to this reality. And I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking.

That I wasn't connecting the dots between other kinds of social injustices that are occurring here in the United States and abroad to the work that I was committed to and the cause that I had been committed to over the years.

BILL MOYERS: It was a larger breakdown of democracy that affected more people than African-Americans in prison or immigrants being deported. You're saying that the system has broken down.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. The entire system has been broken down. And it's really I think, at its root about a failure on our part to develop a moral consensus about how we treat one another. You know, for me, I have to care. If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime. If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who's facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well?

Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King's insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.

So, I think we ought to commit ourselves to building a human rights movement in this country, a human rights movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails. A movement that will end all these forms of legal discrimination against people released from prison, discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, to shelter, to education, to food.

BILL MOYERS: You don't think practical politics leads you where you want to go?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: No. I think that the system, as it is designed today, with the amount of money that influences who gets elected and who even has a shot of holding office in the United States today. I think that the way the system is currently designed does not allow for that kind of policy change to occur. We're going to have to build a movement that changes the nature of politics itself, that takes money and the profound influence of money out of politics and is one that is not, you know, a win/lose, winner take all kind of system. Today we have Democrats and Republicans battling it out with people joining camps and thinking that somehow through this war demonizing the opposition we're going to come up with solutions that genuinely benefit all. I think that's deeply misguided. We're going to have to become more creative about how we do democracy in the United States. But it begins I believe, with people in their communities organizing around the issues that matter most to them
BILL MOYERS: Aren't you talking in some instances about ghettoized communities that, where unemployment is high, families are in distress, schools are falling apart and there are very few life support systems. How do they organize?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It's incredibly difficult. Incredibly difficult. But it's not impossible. I'm inspired by people like Susan Burton, for example. She's executive director of an organization in Los Angeles called A New Way of Life. And Susan is an African-American woman who became addicted to crack-cocaine after a Los Angeles Police Department Officer ran over her five-year-old boy. And if Susan, you know, had been middle class, upper-middle class, she might have had a good health care plan and might've been able to get good legal drugs to help her cope with her depression and her grief. 
But things were different for Susan. She became addicted to crack-cocaine and spent 15 years cycling in and out of prison and jail. Every time, tossed out onto the street, unable to get work or even access to drug treatment, cycling in and out for 15 years. Finally she gets access to a private drug treatment program, becomes clean, is given a job and decides to dedicate her life to ensuring that no other woman would ever have to go through what she has gone through.

And now Susan runs five safe homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles, providing them desperately needed shelter, support, finding work, reunifying with their families. But beyond that, she is part of All of Us or None and is organizing formally incarcerated people in California and nationwide to demand the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. 

BILL MOYERS: So they--

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And what's happening is phenomenal.

BILL MOYERS: So they could become full citizens again.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And with the leadership of organizations like All of Us or None, they've succeeded in banning the box on employment applications in the entire state of California. You know, there're enormous victories that are being achieved precisely because the people who we have written off and viewed as disposable are reclaiming their voice, standing up, speaking out, organizing even as they struggle to survive.

And so, you know, my own view is that in building this movement we've got to be able to do a number of things simultaneously. We've got to be able and committed to building an underground railroad for people who are released from prison, people who need desperate help finding shelter and food as they try to make a break for real freedom. But we've also got to be willing to work for abolition at the same time. Abolition of the system of mass incarceration as a whole.

And I see people like Susan Burton and so many others miraculously managing to do these things at the same time. And so I hope that, you know, people will donate generously to these organizations which often don't receive the level of funding from foundations they deserve and also find ways to donate their time and their energy to this work and be part of this movement in a direct way.

BILL MOYERS: Aren't there some signs of progress on the issues that concern you?

Attorney General Eric Holder has begun to advocate for some reform of our mandatory minimum sentences. Here he is speaking to the American Bar Association. Take a listen.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences. They--

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It's a very encouraging sign. It suggests that at least for a small category of cases, mandatory minimum sentences will no longer be automatically sought by federal prosecutors. And it's a positive step in the right direction.

It doesn't go all the way. Mandatory sentences are still on the books and will still apply to thousands of people who, you know, may be dubbed as having some kind of gang-related connections and of course those kind of connections do not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

And, you know, in a number of states across the United States in recent years mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, non-violent drug crimes have been reduced. And we've seen for the first time in 40 years state prison populations beginning to decline. The federal prison population is still rising. And most of the people who are incarcerated in federal prisons are there due to drug offenses and immigration violations.

So we still see, you know, the federal prison population rising. But the state prison population's beginning to decline. And that is reason for hope. But my concern is that the primary reason that legislatures have begun to ease up some of their harsh mandatory minimum sentences is not because of genuine concern for the people whose lives have been destroyed or the communities that have been decimated by the drug war. But instead these changes have been motivated largely because of the fiscal crisis.

BILL MOYERS: They can't afford these prisons anymore

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. These states find that there's no way to maintain these massive prison systems without raising taxes on the predominately white middle class. So they've been willing to downsize a bit.

BILL MOYERS: Well, take California. Former Governor Schwarzenegger said they had been investing too much in prisons and not enough in schools. But ultimately it turns out that what he was proposing wasn't altogether downsizing. It was privatizing the prison so that the responsibility for them was transferred to for-profit corporations. And I ask you what happens when there's a profit motive to send people to prison?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, when there's a profit motive it ensures that more and more people will be locked up and remain locked up in order for companies to maintain their profit margins. You know, the largest prison company, private prison company in the United States, The Corrections Corporation of America, sent a letter to 48 governors basically with an offer: we will buy your state-run prisons in exchange for a promise, a guarantee, that you will keep these prisons filled at least 90 percent capacity.

You know, these kinds of agreements and incentives are not in the public interest. You know, what would be in the public interest is, you know, a commitment to reducing crime so that our prison's empty. But instead, private prisons want a commitment from state governors that these prisons will be kept filled by any means necessary which virtually ensures a high-level of commitment by politicians to these get tough measures, mandatory sentences, war on drugs, to keep prison beds filled, so.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana and I believe Virginia all have privatized prisons that are kept at 95 to 100 percent occupancy because they have guaranteed that occupancy to the private industry. Even if the crime rate falls.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, that's what's most worrisome is that they will insist and have insisted on keeping their beds full even if crime rates are relatively low. And today, you know, crime rates nationally are at historical lows. But incarceration rates are higher than they ever have been.

BILL MOYERS: Well, some people argue, as you know, that the crime rate nationally is down because we've been locking up the people who commit the crimes.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, which has been proven to be demonstrably false. You know, if you look at the data it shows that, you know, states that have been on an incarceration binge do not necessarily have lower crime rates than states that have incarcerated people at a lower rate. There is no clear connection between incarceration rates and crime rates. And in fact, in cities like Chicago and in New Orleans, New Orleans is the incarceration capital of the world, you know, they have some of the highest violent crime rates in the country as well.

And the same can be said for Chicago. In fact, you know, a growing number of researchers and sociologists now believe that incarceration rate, high levels of incarceration, actually can be a contributor to high crime rates because you’re incarcerating such a large percentage of a community or a population, you're ensuring that people are going to be locked out of work and locked out of housing and living, you know, in a state of desperation for the rest of their lives.

So I would hope that as we build this movement to end mass incarceration, we will not be tempted to make purely fiscal arguments about the need for reform but ensure that the way we engage in our advocacy helps to inspire much greater care, compassion and concern for the very people who have been locked up, locked out and that we have been taught to despise.

BILL MOYERS: But when you look back historically at slavery, condoned by many people who quoted the bible, when you look at what happened after the Civil War. It took the Civil War to free the slaves and then they were put back into a form of slavery with a coerced labor, forced labor.

And use of Jim Crow laws, you referred to. You look at the racial violence that extended right on through our time. Where do you get any hope that this ideal of compassion, that we can create a society, such as you describe, given our conflicted, often savage past?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I get my hope from this revolutionary idea that doesn't seem to die in the United States. This idea that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That was a revolutionary idea in the Declaration of Independence. And it was wholly incomplete. It was all men are created equal and implicitly slaves were left out, you know, poor people were left out.

BILL MOYERS: Women were left out.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Women were left out. Right. But it was a revolutionary idea then and it remains a revolutionary idea today. This idea that keeps changing and growing and expanding as our consciousness changes and grows and expands that all human beings are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, it won't die. It didn't die with slavery, you know, a war was necessary to end slavery. But this idea has continued to survive and it's continued to grow. And we see now that in the United States we do believe that women are equal. We have an idea that people of all races are created equal. We are now beginning to see that depending on, regardless of your sexual orientation, you are equal.

This idea itself has not died. And so I think the worst thing we can do is to fall into a sort of cynicism where we imagine nothing can ever be done. You know, these new systems of control just keep being born. This is just part of human nature. Well, it may be part of human nature to fear one another. But there is also a part of human nature I believe that wants to see the equality, even divinity, in each other and to honor it. And that spirit remains alive in the United States today. And if we give up on it then I think we're giving up on the dream of truly thriving equitable multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Michelle Alexander, thank you very much for being with me.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.


A broadcast journalist for more than four decades, Bill Moyers has been recognized as one of the unique voices of our times, one that resonates with multiple generations. In 2012, at the age of 77, Moyers begins his latest media venture with the launch of "Moyers & Company." With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, Bill Moyers has produced such groundbreaking public affairs series as "NOW with Bill Moyers" (2002-2005) and "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010).

For his work, Moyers has received more than 30 Emmys, two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, nine Peabodys, and three George Polk Awards. Moyers' most recent book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," was published in May 2011. He currently serves as president of the Schumann Media Center, a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.


Michelle Alexander on the Irrational Race Bias of the Criminal Justice and Prison Systems

By Mark Karlin, Truthout | Interview