World & Nation

John Legend’s Oscar remarks about slavery, incarceration are true

Common and John Legend
John Legend, right, with Common, left, accept the Oscar for best original song, “Glory,” from the “Selma” movie soundtrack.
(Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images)

When musicians John Legend and Common won an Oscar on Sunday night for their song “Glory” — featured on the soundtrack for the movie “Selma” — Legend made a bold statement in his acceptance speech.

“Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now,” Legend said in globally televised remarks, adding, “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

Literally speaking, what Legend said is true. But it is important to add some context.

Legend’s remarks appear to originate with scholar and attorney Michelle Alexander, who published the book “The New Jim Crow” in 2010 — a blistering racial critique of the modern American prison system.


“There are more African Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began,” Alexander told PBS’ “Frontline” in 2013.

Those remarks are very similar to Legend’s — to the delight of Alexander, who has argued that mass imprisonment is a present-day form of discrimination and racial control.

“I am so proud of John Legend for using his moment on stage to raise awareness of the most pressing racial justice issue of our time,” Alexander told the Los Angeles Times in an email Monday. “He’s absolutely right that the struggle for racial justice is not simply part of our history, but is as urgent now as ever.”

The key difference between Alexander and Legend’s remarks is that Alexander makes it clear she is including probation and parole — and not just prison — in her definition of “correctional control.”


PolitiFact examined Alexander’s incarceration/slavery statement last year — after it was repeated by a college student at a public forum — and deemed it true. There were 872,924 black, male slaves older than age 15 in the U.S. according to the 1850 Census, the fact-checking service found.

That’s compared with the 526,000 black men in prison at the end of 2013, plus the 877,000 on probation and the 280,000 on parole — almost 1.7 million in total, according to PolitiFact’s tallies.

The big caveat is that there are far more black residents in the United States now — roughly 42 million — than during 1850, when the entire country’s population, including both white and black people, was only 23.2 million.

In other words, prison, probation and parole have a huge impact on the lives of black Americans today, but “correctional control" may still claim a smaller proportion of the black population than slavery, which was pervasive in the years before the Civil War.

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