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By Sholnn Freeman
Communications Specialist
January 25, 2013      

Edelman and Organizers Speak Against Mass Incarceration at King Endowed Lecture

Marian Wright Edelman discusses prison policy with students.

WASHINGTON – Marian Wright Edelman, Rev. Janet Wolf, and organizers from the Children’s Defense Fund promoted education, expansion of anti-poverty efforts and an end to America’s “romance with guns” as ways to disrupt the social crisis of African-American mass incarceration.

Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, participated in the lecture titled, “Prisons: A Corporate Goldmine?” on Jan. 23 at Howard University. The panel discussion was part of this year’s Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Lecture series.

“If we don’t break this cradle to prison pipeline we are going to go back to repeat history,” Edelman said. “Some historians think we are already back to 1910. We’ve got to wake up and stop it right now and say we are not going to be enslaved.”

 Elaine R. Jones, former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who is coordinating the lecture series this year also took part in the discussion. Jones and Edelman were joined by Rev. Janet Wolf, the national program coordinator and director of Nonviolent Organizing to End the Cradle to Prison Pipeline of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The lecture program also featured organizers from theChildren’s Defense Fund Damien Durr, Shakya Cherry-Donaldson and Ndume Olatushani, a former Tennessee death row inmate who spoke about his experiences in life before leading up to the 28-year period he suffered in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

Olatushani, who was released from prison seven months ago and recently celebrated his 55th birthday, told how he lost interest in school after experiencing racism from a teacher who suggested that he become a construction worker rather than a veterinarian.

He dropped out and began to develop the criminal record that would eventually lead him to being wrongfully convicted, he said.

“When I stand up and reflect on my life,” Olatushani said. “I could have been any one of you sitting here. There are people who have an interest in us being in prison as opposed to a college campus.”

Olatushani asked the audience to raise their hands to make a public admission if they had relatives in the prison system. As hands went up around the room, he said this public admission was the first step in encouraging more people to become active in tackling the problem.

The organizers also spoke about historical means of oppression, such as the Black Codes, criminal laws that explicitly applied only to Black people, and convict leasing. They called today’s corporate-style prison system a reinvention of the old systems. They said a number of American companies were profiting from the mass incarceration of African Americans.

In addition, Edelman also spoke out against mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, the proliferation of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that are increasingly ensnaring young African-American schoolchildren. Wolf, a professor at American Baptist College, a historically Black private college in Nashville, said more colleges and universities needed to offer classes within the prison system.

Ndume Olatushani, a former Tennessee death row inmate, shares his experiences at the lecture. (Seated in the center)
Wolf and Edelman said student leadership network training was critical to solving the problem. She said the Children’s Defense Fund has committed to train 5,000 youth leaders over the next three years. She said she wanted half the number to be Black males.

Under Edelman’s leadership, Children’s Defense Fund has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. Edelman is a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School and began her career in the mid-60s as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar.

Established in 2008 with the King’s $1 million donation to the University, the chair is intended to encourage highly accomplished individuals to come to Howard to share their experiences with current students. The Kings, who are both Howard alumni, inaugurated the chair to reflect their years in public service and media. The discussion on the American prison system is the third Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy lecture in the current academic year.

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