January 15, 2013
BET, Vindicated, and Dr. King’s Dream of Drum Majors for Justice
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. The holiday honoring the life and work of Dr. King will take place on Monday, January 21st. Dr. King gave up what would have been a relatively comfortable middle-class life to devote his life to the fight against injustice, poverty, inequality, and war. Understand, as a child born to middle class parents, he, as a “Negro”, faced constant reminders that income does not mean equality. There were no water fountains in the Jim Crow South that said Whites, Blacks and Middle Class/Wealthy Blacks. There is no shortage of stories about entertainment giants being relegated to a second class status when traveling in the South. Even so, Dr. King gave up a life of comfort, free from his home being bombed and his life being threatened on a daily basis for a life of a Drum Major for Justice, A Drum Major of Peace, a Drum Major for Righteousness. But, as an African American in the South, in particular, comfort was not guaranteed, as the parents of the four young girls who lost their lives at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to a bomb because the voices of freedom were on the rise and scaring the white power structure intimately and painfully understood. Indeed, there were a number of homes bombed and lives destroyed, and countless number of people willing to stay silent, including middle class Blacks in Alabama. It is very fitting that the nation stops for a moment to reflect on the King years and the legacy of Dr. King, who was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, leaving the world with a sound legacy, a record of service, and speeches, sermons and books that continue to provide an outline and prescription for what still needs to be done. One of Dr. King’s most quoted lines is this: “Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.” The full paragraph from this letter written in a Birmingham jail following criticism from white Alabama clergyman who questioned why he came to Birmingham to engage in non-violent protest is this:
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds” (p77, Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King, Jr.,).
The letter from the preachers to Dr. King came within months of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace’s January 14, 1963 Inauguration speech where he uttered the infamous words Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation forever (http://media.al.com/spotnews/other/George%20Wallace%201963%20Inauguration%20Speech.pdf), but instead of an open letter challenging Wallace, a letter was directed towards King, for being an outside agitator who needs to let the people in Alabama resolve these issues. Dr. King dually addressed this in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)
Legislation passed during the 1960s helped to move the nation forward. Both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed many barriers including access, theoretically, to the neighborhood of your choice and access to the voting booth without proving to some individual who could barely read himself that you were literate enough to vote. A lot of blood was shed and lives lost in pursuit of these power achievements during that era. Jim Crow died.
The New Jim Crow
In just a short period of time, a new tool of control developed in the form of the criminal justice system, with the War on Drugs serving as a conduit to incarcerate a large number of individuals, with African Americans disproportionately being the targets of this drug war. Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness writes in her book:
…The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so-called underclass is better understood as an undercaste– a lower class of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society. Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as other systems of control did. Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race. (Michelle Alexander, p. 13)
The prison industrial complex increased from 300,000 prisoners in 1980 to nearly 2 million by 2000, with the War on Drugs fueling this increase (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p 59). Caught up in the race to incarcerate mentality that existed on the local, state and federal level were innocent people (and people serving time for many more years that the crimes called for). The Innocence Project, alone, has been responsible for over 300 exonerations, and this is just the tip of the iceberg of the number of people who are innocent, but in prison. Dr. King would be speaking out about this. Dr. King left us his legacy, and his prescription-filled speeches, sermons, writings and actions to address injustice.
BET, Vindicated and Real Husbands of Hollywood
It was this reality that has brought me to a high level of frustration of Black Entertainment Television (BET) replacing a show highlighting people who were wrongfully convicted, but who have since been exonerated and vindicated, with a reality show that spoofs a reality show franchise. The first episode of Vindicated aired on December 4th and it highlighted Timothy Cole’s case, a college student wrongfully convicted and vindicated- after he died in prison while on year 13 (for more information about Timothy Cole, please read this piece http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/12/tim-cole-rick-perry ). After the two-part episode on Cole, they aired an episode about Herman Atkins, who was falsely accused of rape and served 12 years in prison, and they promoted other cases, including a female who has been vindicated. But December 18th was the last episode aired. I applauded BET for the show Vindicated, hosted by Morris Chesnut, and looked forward to a series of Tuesday evening at 10pm shows.
It was to my great surprise to hear promos on the radio about the “ Husbands of Hollywood” to be aired in the spot that featured “Vindicated.” (and, sadly, if you go the website for “Vindicated” you see a promotion of Real Husbands…http://www.bet.com/shows/vindicated/vindicated-all-videos.html) My first reaction was how could BET, on Dr. King’s actual birthday, replace such an important show with a comedy show. Dr. King had a sense of humor just like many people, former Ambassador and civil rights icon Andrew Young has often spoken about how Dr. King liked to laugh and joke around in private, but were he alive today, I can say with ultimate certainty that he would choose “Vindicated” over a the “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” BET collaborated with the Innocence Project to get cases for the show and based on its promos, they have at least a couple of new episodes ready to air. If they believed that Tuesday night was not a good night or if they have plans to resume the show, why not say this, why not put this information on their webpage for the audience it was building to see. It is as if they have decided that three shows were enough.
I understand that in a capitalistic society what is popular and therefore most profitable is often what is aired over what is socially responsible. I personally believe that highlighting how the system of justice has stolen so much from the lives of innocent people and how these individuals were finally vindicated is so much more socially responsible than seeing Kevin Hart clowning in another television show, no disrespect to Mr. Hart, that is his craft, he is funny, and he makes a lot of money at what he does, but in the long term, highlighting injustices within the judicial system will do more good than seeing someone throw a glass of beer, wine, whatever in someone else’s face for laughs. I sincerely hope that BET plans to roll out a series of episodes of “Vindicated” in the near future, I’m just deeply disappointed that one won’t air on Dr. King’s birthday. Perhaps I expect too much.
One of Dr. King’s sermons entitled “The Drum Major Instinct” explains that this instinct is a desire to be out front, a desire to lead a parade, a desire to be first, and it is something that runs the gamut of the whole life… the presence of this instinct is why so many people are joiners (I Have a Dream, Writings and Speeches that Changes the World, edited by James Washington, p 181, 185). The powers that be at BET can be different, they do not have to continue to lead BET to compete with the vast number of reality and programs without much substance; they can follow the beat of their own drum and aim to be drum majors for justice. This is a lot expect of BET given some of the programs and video shows it has and will air, but BET can continue to produce and promote shows such as “Vindicated.” It is devastating to be innocent and in prison. It can happen to anyone. Shows such as “Vindicated” demonstrate how it can happen and can serve as a means to help prevent these sorts of injustices from happening. There was recently a seemingly successful petition to stop the Oxygen Network from airing the show “All My Babies Mamas.” The title needs no explanation. How many people can join an effort to keep “Vindicated” ON the air? It doesn’t simply take a petition to do so, you can start by sending BET a tweet at https://twitter.com/BET or post on the BET Justice Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/#!/BETJustice. In this, I hope you will be a joiner as injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Artemesia Stanberry is an advocate for Rodney K. Stanberry, who remains in prison for crimes he did not commit. In March of this year, he will complete 16 full years, with four more still to go unless the judicial system corrects itself. For more information about his case, please go to www.freerodneystanberry.com. Also, please join the Facebook group page and fan page at http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/freerodneykstanberry/ and http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Free-Rodney-K-Stanberry/228205690552328.