I'm putting a YouTube video of it at the bottom of this post, but before you get there, take a moment to think about how far we've come in 50 years. And how far there is to go.
King's focus was, of course, on race. He dreamed of a time when people would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Don't we all. And if we broaden that just a bit, to wish for the same sort of judgment that reaches not only beyond skin color but beyond wealth and power and position, beyond the self-righteous propositions and beliefs that we (whoever "we" may be) are better than they (whoever "they" are).
Scott Greenfield this morning posted a lengthy excerpt from the Fourth Circuit's opinion in U.S. v. Bartko in which the court excoriated the U.S. Attorney's office for a demonstrated pattern of lying and cheating to obtain convictions. Do it again, the court said, and we might have to call the U.S. Attorney himself into court to listen to us berate him. But of course, the poor saps who are victimized are probably guilty, so hey, it's not like we're actually going to do anything about it except say (as we have over and over),
Please stop doing bad things that corrupt the system but for which you get reward and no consequence. Just because you think you're better. And you can.It ain't just in federal court. Ohio's latest execution date is for Angelo Fears. Back in 1999, when the Ohio Supremes affirmed his death sentence in State v. Fears, the late Chief Justice dissented.
This court has several times used vigorous language in denouncing government counsel for such conduct as that of the United States Attorney here. But, each time, it has said that, nevertheless, it would not reverse. Such an attitude of helpless piety is, I think, undesirable. It means actual condonation of counsel's alleged offense, coupled with verbal disapprobation. If we continue to do nothing practical to prevent such conduct, we should cease to disapprove it. For otherwise it will be as if we declared in effect, "Government attorneys, without fear of reversal, may say just about what they please in addressing juries, for our rules on the subject are pretend-rules. If prosecutors win verdicts as a result of `disapproved' remarks, we will not deprive them of their victories; we will merely go through the form of expressing displeasure. The deprecatory words we use in our opinions on such occasions are purely ceremonial." Government counsel, employing such tactics, are the kind who, eager to win victories, will gladly pay the small price of a ritualistic verbal spanking. The practice of this court — recalling the bitter tear shed by the Walrus as he ate the oysters — breeds a deplorably cynical attitude towards the judiciary.The prosecutors are the white guys. Or might as well be. The defendants are black. Or might as well be.
50 years on, the Supreme Court has done what it can to gut the Voting Rights Act because there is no more systemic racism in this country. 50 years on, the Supreme Court has done what it can to end affirmative action because everyone now has equal opportunity. The problems have, the five who decide, been solved. A little dusting around the edges maybe from time to time, the odd slap on the wrist with a reminder to sin no more is all it will take to keep everything humming properly.
Not so, of course. And it's nowhere more clear than in the criminal justice system that treats African-Americans and Hispanics as, and actually converts them into, a criminal class. Don't take my word for it. Read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. Read Judge Scheindlin's opinion in the Stop and Frisk case, Floyd v. City of New York.
50 years on. Much really has been achieved. But it's far from over. There's so much left to do.
Listen to the speech.