Talking to Our Civil Rights Heroes About Criminal Justice Reform

August 13, 2019

Emmett Till site

Every individual deserves respect and dignity and that individually and collectively people have the capacity, power, right, and responsibility to effectuate social change. —Medgar Evers

What’s left of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, is crumbling. Almost entirely overtaken by vines, the location where 14-year-old Emmett Till was first accused of whistling at a white woman and then brutally tortured and lynched in the summer of 1955 is nearly gone. An orange construction fence—erected by the family of one of the jury who acquitted Till’s two killers in 1955, who now own the land—keeps visitors from getting too close, prompting the question: Should the sites of violent civil rights history be restored and opened to visitors, or should they be allowed to fade away?

At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait—what does this have to do with ice cream?!” But stay with us here. Last week, Ben & Jerry’s spent several days in Jackson, Mississippi, for the Association  of African American Museums’ 41st conference. We threw our support behind the conference because we believe that history is—and continues to be—vitally important, and because we also believe that the preservation of African American history is an essential reminder of what makes us American. And that’s why we were standing in front of Bryant’s Grocery last week.

But here’s the thing: just because a storefront that prompted a national discussion about race is slowly returning to dust doesn’t mean the conversation—or the injustice that prompted it—is over. Want proof? Take a look at our criminal justice system. We have, and we don’t think it’s very just. So while we were at AAAM, we talked with civil rights legends (both past and present) about how their years of experience can guide the fight to ensure justice and safety are a reality for ALL Americans. Here’s what they had to say.

Confederate monument


Criminal (In)Justice Started with Slavery

You can’t talk about our current criminal justice system without going back to the beginning. The very beginning: slavery. The American economy was founded on the exploitation of Black men, women, and children. And even though slavery legally ended with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, Black people endured a brutal era of race-based terror from the collapse of Reconstruction until WWII, coupled with a convict-lease system that further oppressed and abused any persons of color. Add on the Jim Crow laws designed to enforce racial segregation, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for injustice.

Or, as Jeffery Robinson, the ACLU’s deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality says, “First, you dehumanize Black Americans; then you separate them from the rest of society. And finally, you police and prosecute them aggressively. And those are the roots of our criminal justice system today.”

Parchman Prison


Injustice is Still Alive and Well Today

Unconvinced? Here’s how Robinson’s summary plays out in numbers: The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with about 2.3 million people behind bars. Black males are just 7 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 37 percent of the incarcerated population. As Robinson says, “either we as Black people are more criminal, more violent, and less trustworthy than white people—or else something else is going on. And at the ACLU, we believe that something else is going on.”

Jeffrey Robinson

Take, for example, the criminalization of poverty. Amreeta Mathai, staff attorney with the ACLU’s racial justice program, sees this play out over and over again: In order to make up for revenue lost by lowering taxes, courts levy excessive fines and fees for minor infractions. Those minor infractions often cascade into catastrophic events that include jail time, ridiculously high money bail amounts, or enormous debt.

“People of color are overpoliced, therefore a minor offense can drive someone who was already impoverished deeper into poverty,” Mathai says. “It’s just another way to keep marginalized people of color under surveillance and economically disenfranchised.”

And it’s not just adults who suffer. Melishia Brooks, an educator and advocate from Jackson, says she sees young people of color living in “survival mode” to avoid unfairly becoming targets. “The belief is that if you follow the rules, you won’t get into trouble,” she says. “But if you’re Black or brown, that’s just not true.”


Looking to the Past to Give Us Hope

The theme of this year’s AAAM conference was Roots of Revolution: Reaching Back / Pushing Forward, and we were incredibly honored to get the opportunity to chat with some attending legends of the Civil Rights Movement, who used civil protest, sit-ins, community organizing, and voter registration drives, among other tactics, to effect change.

“The main system we were challenging was the Constitution,” says Bob Moses, civil rights activist, educator, and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “We were saying that we were citizens of this country, and that it meant something. We wanted to feel it was our country, too.”

Moses and his fellow civil rights leaders

Moses and his fellow civil rights leaders and organizers—Charlie Cobb, Ericka Huggins, and Sonia Sanchez—recalled memories (and victories) that came out of the Civil Rights Movement during AAAM, but also identified several challenges still facing us today.

Justice is Justice is Justice is Justice

“Still,” notes Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, “that we’re having conversations about racism and oppression right here in Jackson, Mississippi, is incredibly important, both in historical context and having just had the largest ICE raid on U.S. soil ever right here.”

By calling for integrated conversations about immigration and criminal justice, Cullors entreats all people to join together for reform.

“Black Lives Matter isn’t a project or movement just for Black people,” she says. “When Black people get free, everyone else gets a little more free. It has a ripple effect.”

Medgar Evars home


Here’s What You Can Do to Help

We firmly believe that you don’t have to experience oppression or racism yourself to help push back against it. You can be any age, any race, any color, and be from any place in the world.

“I believe the movement is all about people understanding people, and people treating other people equally,” says Reena Evers-Everette, daughter of civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers. “It’s a movement that is inclusive of everybody. Not one race will win; it takes everyone to make this world a better place.”

Huggins takes a similar view. “It must be love that motivates us. If we lose sight of why we’re resisting, then only anger or sadness or both is motivating it,” says Huggins.

We challenge you to join us in the fight for equality and justice for all. It’s time for change. It’s time to invest in communities, not incarceration. By transforming the system, we can make the world a little bit better for everyone.