Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy would not be complete without discussing his commitment to economic justice. In the sixty years since Dr. King’s passing, we have failed to extend his dream for equality to our prison system.
Dr. King challenged economic systems that favored profits over people. He dreamed of a society where no one sacrificed essentials to give luxuries to a few. Today, the majority of America’s incarcerated population is forced to work for little to no pay, enabled by the exception to the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolition of slavery for those who have committed a crime.
This country’s use of prison labor is deeply racist, and has its roots in chattel slavery and the end of the Civil War. The report “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers” by the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic and the ACLU recognizes that after the abolition of slavery, many states “turned to incarcerated labor as a means of partially replacing chattel slavery and the free labor force slavery provided. As state corrections systems expanded, so too did the number of state-sponsored incarcerated labor programs.”
The Captive Labor report also reveals that two out of three of the United States’ more than 1.2 million prisoners are forced to work, often in unsafe conditions and without adequate training. Their labor generates billions for corporations every year, while they make cents per hour and are denied opportunities to maintain and build skills for their post-release careers.
In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” US law explicitly excludes incarcerated workers from the most universally recognized workplace protections. We can honor Dr. King by extending fair labor practices to prisons, and by making thoughtful consumer choices.
Our purchasing decisions carry power. By choosing products certified as Fair Trade or B-Corp, we can support businesses committed to ethical labor practices. These certifications ensure fair treatment and dignity for workers inside and outside of prison. By choosing these products, we endorse equality over exploitation.
Dr. King was more than a dreamer. He turned dreams into actions. As we reflect on his legacy, let us embrace our role in pursuing his vision for a more equitable world.