What Would King Think of Mass Incarceration?

Today, January 15, marks the birthday of legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. He would have been 94 years old. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of King’s important “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written while he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama. As we honor the life and legacy of King, it is worth reflecting on King’s response and what he said about the mass incarceration of African Americans and marginalized communities.

King condemned the mass incarceration of his supporters and civil rights activists across the United States. In response to those who believed mass incarceration was justified because those jailed had broken the law, King wrote that we ought to understand the difference between a just law and an unjust law. An unjust law, King continued, “is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.” When considering the inequitable application of the law and the racialization of the criminal justice system, we must agree with King that mass incarceration is built on, and continues to be built upon, the foundation of unjust laws.

As an organization committed to honoring and upholding King’s legacy by offering holistic reentry services to formerly incarcerated women, it is fitting that today, on King’s birthday, we are opening our 12th Safe Home. This home will accommodate 14 women and expand our services in South Los Angeles and the Greater Long Beach area. The residents of this home, like the residents of all our homes, will have access to all aspects of our services, many of which resonate with King’s commitment to nonviolent activism, such as our Women Organizing for Justice & Opportunity (WOJO) Leadership Lab: a six-month training program for formerly incarcerated women to sharpen their social justice leadership skills.

As we celebrate and honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy today, tomorrow, and the rest of the year, we ask that you support organizations like our own, which is committed to upholding King’s commitment to nonviolent activism. You can do this through volunteering, financial donations, and more. As King stated, “the time is always right to do right.”