LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District celebrated the Martin Luther King federal holiday with a Jan. 10 visit to the District's downtown headquarters from Judge Joe Brown, who engaged the audience with a wide-ranging talk that addressed education, family, the criminal justice system and the influence of celebrity on today's society.
"We get speakers who bring things to light to those not in the African-American culture," said Matthews Turner, a member of the Black Employment Program Committee, the organization that arranged for the judge to speak.
"Judge Brown did that," Turner said, "and he left us with quite a few questions."
Brown, host of the syndicated "Judge Joe Brown Show," cited education and family as two areas where the United States falls far short of what it can and should be.
"Our education system is deplorable," he said. "China has eleven times the number of college graduates as the U.S. India has nine times as many, Pakistan seven."
Brown said many of the nation's immigration laws prevent those educated in America from staying.
"They go back to their home countries and open businesses and hire people there," he said. "They could be doing that here in the U.S. Dr. King said we should open the country to everybody. Think about all the resources you'll have available to you."
Brown talked about the disintegration of the nuclear family as a major source of concern for the development of the nation's youth.
"Forty-one per cent of U.S. citizens under 30 are illegitimate," he said. "We have a lack of fathers raising children, especially boys."
Brown said the lack of a male authority figure in many households, and the attitude of a large number of single mothers toward the fathers of their children, is a difficult obstacle for many young boys to overcome.
"They don't have someone they respect teaching them what it's like to be a man, what his responsibilities are," Brown said.
He said those difficulties often result in a disrespect for authority, which can lead to many undesirable consequences, including crime. When that happens, Brown said, young people can end up in a system that treats the symptoms, but not the causes of the behavior. He cited what he said were a number of incentives for profit to made from the incarceration of people without a corresponding focus on how to address the issues of why they are there or what to do to prevent recidivism.
"What's wrong with the criminal justice system is that it's too efficient at what it does," he said. "But it doesn't control crime."
He said the system is "often used as a surplus labor control device, because our country has not engaged in the long range planning to put ordinary working Americans, the Archie Bunkers, into the future where he will have a viable income doing a meaningful job. We do not address that."
While most people are aware of him because of his television show, Judge Brown possesses an impressive judicial resumè. Following graduation from the University of California at Los Angeles Law School, Brown became the first African-American prosecutor in the city of Memphis and later opened his own law practice before becoming a judge on the State Criminal Court of Shelby County, Tenn.
"When Dr. King was assassinated, I was a senior at UCLA. I never imagined I would hear his case in my courtroom," Brown said, referring to his appointment as the presiding judge in James Earl Ray's final appeal over his conviction for the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Brown said there were elements of the evidence presented that concerned him, and he ordered additional testing on the alleged murder weapon. He said the rifling on the bullet and that obtained from the rifle "wasn't even close."
"I have my own idea, but I don't think we'll ever know for sure," he said. "I believe it was a gross miscarriage of justice."
Brown told attendees that the nation celebrates holidays in honor of three individuals: Washington, Lincoln and King.
"Washington was instrumental in the foundation of the nation, Lincoln its unification, preservation and permanence," he said. "Dr. King was the soul of the nation. He helped us actualize the rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution, rights that are held too lightly by too many of today's citizens."
But he cautioned listeners that too many "have taken rights as license. The Army used to have a slogan, 'Be all you can be.' I think it's more appropriate to say 'Be all you should be.' There's a difference."
Knowing there is a difference and taking appropriate steps to make a better choice was a central theme of Brown's address.
"We do African-American history the wrong way," Brown said.
Instead of merely listing the accomplishments of and contributions made by African-Americans, Brown said, we should ask ourselves, "What is its meaning? What lessons did we learn?"
That message can be applied in all aspects of our lives.