Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
So let's look at the statistics, the United States is home to five percent of the world's population. But twenty five percent of the world's prisoners. Think about that, a little country with five percent of the world's population having 25 percent of the world's prisoners, one out of four, one out of four human beings with their hands on bars, shackled in the world are locked up here in the land of the free. We had a prison population 300000 in 1972.
Today, we have a prison population, two point three million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. So you see now suddenly there an awakening that perhaps we need to downsize our prison system. It's gotten too expensive. It's gotten out of hand. But the very folks who often expressed so much concern about the cost and the expanse of the system are often very unwilling to talk in any serious way about remedying the harm that has been done.
History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose. If we're white, if we are black, we are products of the history that our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet here we all are together. The products of that set of choices. We have to understand that in order to escape from it, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution makes it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave.
In other words, it grants freedom. To all Americans. There are exceptions. Including criminals, there's a clause, a loophole, if you have that embedded in the structure, in this constitutional language, then it's there to be used as a tool for whichever purposes one wants to use it.
One of the things that people have to bear in mind is that when we think about slavery, it was an economic system and the demise of slavery at the end of the Civil War left the southern economy in tatters. And so this presented a big question that four million people who were formerly property and they were formerly kind of the integral part of the economic production system in the south. And now those people are free.
And so what do you do with these people? How do you rebuild your economy? The 13th Amendment loophole was immediately exploited after the Civil War, African-Americans were arrested in Mass. It was our nation's first prison bill. You were basically a slave again, the 13th Amendment says that, hey, except for criminals, everybody else is free. Well, now, if you're criminalized, that doesn't apply to you. They were arrested for extremely minor crimes like loitering or vagrancy.
And they had to provide labor to rebuild the economy of the South after the civil. What you got after that was on a rapid transition to a kind of mythology of black criminality. Go back and read the rhetoric where people use then. They would say that the Negro is out of control, that there's a threat of violence to white women. So the same sort of image we had of Uncle Remus and these genial kind of black figures was replaced by this rapacious, you know, menacing Negro male evil that had to be banished.
Birth of a nation was just a profoundly important cultural event.
It's the first major blockbuster film hailed for both its artistic achievement and for its political commentary, and when it was released, had this rapturous response. You know, the lines, you know, everywhere that it was being shown.
Birth of a nation confirmed the story that many whites wanted to tell about the civil war and its aftermath. To erase defeat and to take out of it sort of a martyrdom. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting president, had a private screening of Birth of a Nation in the White House. He calls it history written with lightning.
And every image you see of a black person is a demeaned animal like image, cannibalistic, animalistic.
The image of the African-American male. A famous scene where a woman throws herself off a cliff rather than being raped by a black male criminal. In the film you see black people being a threat to white women. All the myths of black men as rapists was ultimately stemmed by the reality that the white political elite and the business establishment needed black bodies working.
What we overlook about birth of the Nation was that it was also a tremendously accurate prediction of the way in which race would operate in the United States. Birth of a nation was almost directly responsible for the rebirth of disinfects clan. It had received this romantic, glowing, heroic portrait. The Klan never had the ritual of burning the cross, that was something that D.W. Griffith came up with because he thought that it was a great cinematic image.
So it was literally an instance of life imitating art. The ripples emanate far out from just the simple fact that it's a movie in the early motion picture age. With the tremendous burst of popularity that the Ku Klux Klan had as a result of birth of a nation came another wave of terrorism. We had lynchings in this country between reconstruction and World War Two. Thousands of African-Americans murdered by mobs under the idea that they had done something criminal at the National Democratic Convention in New.
In 1924, it is estimated that at least 350 delegates were Klansmen, demographic geography of this country was shaped by that era.
And we have African-Americans in Los Angeles and Oakland, in Chicago and Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, New York. And very few people appreciate that the African-Americans in those communities did not go there as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities. They went there as refugees from terror. We didn't just land in Oakland, in L.A., in Compton and Harlem, in Brownsville and 2015. This is a generational generational trauma.
The letters KKK were carved with a penknife on the chest and stomach of this man in Houston, Texas, after he had been hanged by his knees from an oak tree and flogged with a chain. The Chicago Negro boy, Emmett Till is alleged to have paid unwelcome attention to Roy Bryant's most attractive wife. And then when it became unacceptable to engage in that kind of open terrorism, then it shifted to something more legal segregation, Jim Crow. Laws were passed that relegated African-Americans to a permanent second class status.
These things really begin to live out. The prophecy that Griffith is making about the way that race operates in the sphere of crime is central to all of this.
Every time you saw a sign that said white and colored, every time you had to deal with the indignation of being told you can't go through the front door every day, you weren't allowed to vote every day, you weren't allowed to go to school. You were bearing a burden that was injurious. Civil rights activists began to see the necessity of building not just a civil rights movement, but a human rights movement, and I think we should.