ATLANTA - The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might be pleasantly surprised by many of the changes in the nation's social fabric since his death. The civil rights movement accomplished an astonishing transformation.
But Dr. King would no doubt be quite disappointed in one area of black life that has only deteriorated since his assassination: the percentage of black men in prison.
In 1954, black inmates accounted for 30 percent of the nation's prison population, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates alternative sentencing. By the time Dr. King died, in 1968, the figure had edged up to between 35 and 40 percent.
Currently, black offenders account for almost half of all prison admissions. An estimated 12 percent of black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars, according to Allen Beck, chief prison demographer for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Mr. Beck estimates that 30 percent of black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.
And even that stunning figure does not capture the decimation of entire communities as young black men are taken away from home and family, away from children they might otherwise care for, mothers they might otherwise marry.
The result is that black youths are terrified by the very idea of incarceration, right? Sadly, popular culture reveals the startling influence that prison - seen as a rite of passage in some poor black neighborhoods - has already had on music and fashion. The baggy pants that fall down from the waist, favored first by rappers and later by many adolescent boys, are an adaptation from jail culture: When a man is arrested, jailers confiscate his belt, so his pants tend to slide down. This is the style that many youngsters have chosen to emulate.
How is a group to enter the mainstream if so many of its young men adopt prison mores as proper conduct? What community could hope to survive - much less thrive - if so many of its men are stigmatized with criminal records?
Given that this is the most pressing issue facing black America, you'd think that those who would take up Dr. King's mantle would devote all of their time to reducing the incarceration rate for black men. Yet, the Jesse Jacksons, Joseph Lowerys and Kweisi Mfumes flit from theme to theme - from corporate race relations to rebel flags - preferring to dwell on incarceration only when a glaring case of injustice promises headlines and airtime.
Injustice does exist in the criminal justice system. Consider the notorious 1999 drug sweep in Tulia, Texas, where more than 40 people - most black - were arrested and several sent to prison on the uncorroborated testimony of a single lawman. After complaints from civil rights organizations and media figures, a state investigation belatedly revealed that the detective was unreliable. Most of the convictions were tossed out last year.
The so-called war on drugs helps explain the rising incarceration rates for black men. Though research has shown that black people are no more likely to use drugs than white people, blacks are much more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes.
"Blacks are arrested and confined in numbers grossly out of line with their use or sale of drugs," concludes criminal justice expert Michael Tonry. But the problem is not simply one of bigotry. The worst-kept secret in black America is the murder rate among black men.
In 2002, black men were likely perpetrators in more than 40 percent of the homicides in which a suspect was identified. They also accounted for nearly 40 percent of the nation's homicide victims (proving that black men represent the greatest threat to one another). That's a staggering statistic for a group that represents less than 6 percent of the population.
What could be more important to continuing Dr. King's legacy than turning black men away from fratricide and steering black youths away from prison?
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.