Martin Luther King did not live to see the War on Drugs, which Richard Nixon declared in 1971. But surely we know the vehemence with which he would have denounced it. His words give us the basis to reflect here on the specific reasons he might have given. In the spirit of Dr. King’s message of love and non-violence, please join us in seeking to end this destructive and wasteful war.
Rev. Alexander E. Sharp
Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy
By Alexander E. Sharp
The War on Drugs has created a system of mass incarceration that divides our country by race and income every bit as much as did slavery and the Jim Crow laws that Dr. Martin Luther King gave his life to eradicate.
In church this past Sunday, therefore, I found myself wondering not whether Dr. King would have condemned the War on Drugs, but what language he might have used. What might he have taught us about how to respond?
The Rev. Julian DeShazier of University Church in Hyde Park, perhaps one of the nation’s finest young preachers, provided an answer. He quoted from Dr. King’s autobiography:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Dr. King was assassinated three years before Richard Nixon launched this war in 1971. We can’t know exactly he would have thought about it. But these words give us guidance. They lead me to think he would have come to view the War on Drugs as a manifestation of tragic irony.
Earlier this year, I was at a McDonalds at Roosevelt and Kedzie, a tough block on Chicago’s Southwest side, speaking with a friend who had lived in the area for long time. “Al”, he said, “70% of the people you see around you right now are high on something.”
I asked whether he thought it would be a good idea to legalize some drugs. He looked at me with alarm. “If you did that,” he said, “you’d be cutting off half the income that people here need to live and to feed their families.”
Dr. King would have seen that some acts, such as the breaking into churches to steal petty cash, are “crimes of poverty.” He would recognized, if not condoned, the drug economy as a path to survival. He would have understood social isolation and economic despair as the primary problems; and the use of drugs as symptoms, not causes. The true causes he would have labeled as structural racism trapping its victims in the virtually airtight cages of what, in Dr. King’s day, were called urban “ghettos.”