A Dream Destroyed: What Would MLK Do?

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On January 31, 2019, Mr. James Forman, Jr., professor at Yale Law School and former public defender gave a brief overview of his book: Locking up our own: Crime and punishment in black America. In doing so, he spoke about being a public defender in Washington, DC as well as the mass incarcerations of African Americans as a result of drug and gun possessions. Their harsh sentencing were largely due to the power of other African American judges, police officers and public officials. Although Forman’s speech was informative, he only talked about the introduction of his book in detail. This book has an introduction, six chapters and an epilogue, yet he spent the majority of his time speaking on the introduction. I would have liked for him to touch on other topics brought about in later chapters, detailing the consequences of mass incarceration. However, I realize he probably only gave the audience a teaser in order for individuals to purchase his book.

Nevertheless, Forman’s teaser gave a great description of Brandon’s story, a fifteen year old boy who was incarcerated for drug and gun possession. Forman notes this case was the preface for the rest of the book, as well as the motivation for wanting to write the book at all. What stood out to me this most in Forman’s introduction was his emphasis on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech. During Forman’s speech, he mentioned the judge referring to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when sentencing Brandon. This was particularly interesting because this is the same Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Forman documents as his encouragement for wanting to be prosecutor. It is so ironic how individuals can use the words of others to fit their own agendas. In Forman’s detailing of Brandon’s sentencing, he writes: “Now you can go to school, study hard, live your dreams … people fought, struggled, and died for that possibility. Dr. King died for that, son. And what are you doing? Not studying! No, you are cutting class, runnin’ and thuggin’, not listening to your momma or grandmother. Instead, you want to listen to some hoodlum friends… Dr. King didn’t die so that you could be a fool”.

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No, Dr. King did not die for Brandon to be a fool, but that is exactly what Judge Walker was acting like. The judge references the ideals of Dr. King as if it was coming from Dr. King himself. Dr. King was assassinated by a white man while fighting to improve the lives of black individuals and black communities. How could the judge have thought mentioning Dr. King was okay? Dr. King struggled so this very thing would not happen. This was a clear misinterpretation of Dr. King’s values, purpose and everything he stood for. The fact the judge mentioned Dr. King in his sentencing angered me tremendously! First, the judge quoted the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who fought so hard for equal rights, a man who went to jail himself for protesting against the mistreatment of blacks. Yet, he felt the need to utilize him as a catalyst for imprisoning a child. Why did he even have to quote Dr. King? Did he feel as though the statement was made greater because he added his name to it? Did he honestly think Dr. King would condone sending a child to prison?

He alludes to Dr. King and others dying so that blacks could have a better education. Yet and still, Brandon was sent to jail, the perfect place for a fifteen year old boy to get a quality education! Second, my issue with this was the fact the judge sentenced the child to the worst jail in the area, Oak Hill. I do not condone Brandon’s possession of the gun or drugs. However, the judge could have just as easily sentenced him to a less harsh juvenile detention center or put him on probation. In Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ Why We Can’t Wait” he states “Even today there still exists in the South–and in certain areas of the North–the license that our society allows to unjust officials who implement their authority in the name of justice to practice injustice against minorities.” When this was written, Dr. King was more than likely speaking of the injustices brought on to blacks by whites, but it is quite unfortunate the “unjust officials” happen to be black in Foreman’s story.

Forman opens his book by asking one major question: “How did a majority-black jurisdiction [Washington, DC] end up incarcerating so many of its own?”. In order to grasp an answer to this question, Forman positions this is due to two debatable areas: gun control and marijuana decriminalization. Throughout the book he discusses how lack of education and poverty play a major role in individuals “gang banging” and selling drugs. Forman does not thoroughly analyze the white supremacist dimensions of U.S. punitive sentiment. He, in fact, minimizes the importance of white supremacy in the development of mass incarceration. I understand his plight for black on black crime or “race traitors” as they are called in the book. However, we need not forget the role of the white man.

I do, however, like the fact he left the audience with a charge. He told us to “pick an issue close to your skill set and figure out how you can make change.” More often than not, we as a people are very good at critiquing or finding the wrongs in every situation. There is nothing wrong with criticism, however, with this criticism should come a solution or an alternative to the “problem.” Even though I am not in the classroom anymore, I still took heed to Forman’s charge. I have to take advantage of the space I am in at the moment and invoke change any way that I can. Forman speaks heavily about education and poverty in his book. As I think more about enculturation, I wonder about the background of Brandon as well as the other clients of Forman. Is it possible for individuals who sell drugs and “gang bang” to come from a privileged family?

With that being said, Forman is the child of a former civil rights activist. As I think about epistemology and individuals learning being rooted and grounded from home, I can only wonder What if? What if Forman grew up in a different environment? What if his parents were uneducated drug dealers? Would he still have written this book? Would he even have been a public defender to have experienced such encounters? Forman briefly talked about being a light skinned African American man, but I also wonder what impact being mulatto had on his perception and truth. This story was told from Foreman’s point of view. His book talks heavily about mass incarcerations of blacks in Washington, what about other areas?

Forman also talks about his involvement in the prison system with an “inside out program.” I was intrigued by the fact he teaches class to incarcerated individuals along with his Yale Students. He notes an inmate telling him he “felt like an intellectual.” I really liked this aspect of his speech. It made me ask myself, What can I do? Although I definitely can not see myself teaching in a jail, I can teach children to prevent them from being incarcerated. I am heavily involved with my church, but Forman’s speech/book challenged me to think of ways I could innovatively incorporate lessons about prison. I could possibly have an ex con speak to my children, but I think the impact would be greater if they actually visited the jail cell. I want to be able to use this in my research as well. As I look into the experiences of students who cannot read. They may possibly come from a background of past felons, which in turn effects how they learn.


Forman, J. (2018). Locking up our own: Crime and punishment in black America. New York:

Farrar, Straus and Giroux [Audiobook].

King, M. L. (2018). Why we cant wait. UK: Penguin Books.

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