(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

A t 5 p.m. on a Sunday in April, the air crisp and cool, community members began congregating in an open plaza outside the public library in Princeton, New Jersey. In the center of the plaza stood a small red podium; outdoor chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle and around 30 people, mostly over the age of 50, had already taken their seats. The Rev. Joan Fleming, a retired Episcopal priest, rose to welcome the audience, her British accent barely audible, even with the help of a microphone. “This was not the kind of book that you could read and just put aside,” she began. “This is a book that makes you want to do something.” As the event continued with a gospel music performance, diners eating at the outdoor patio of a nearby restaurant stared in confusion. Onlookers and passersby began to gather; eventually a crowd of more than 70 people formed. This scene would recur, rain or shine, for the next seven days: community members and curious viewers would assemble in the square for a public reading, accompanied by testimonies, prayers, songs, and poetry readings.

The book that brought these people together was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, a work on inequality and the prison system that has ignited questions about the nature of America’s penal system. Published in 2010, The New Jim Crow presents the disturbing realities of mass incarceration in the United States and its damaging effects on both the families of the incarcerated and on society as a whole. The United States currently has approximately 2.3 million individuals in prison, up from fewer than 350,000 in 1972, more than half of whom are in jail for non-violent crimes. Proportionately, the United States has the most jailed individuals in the world. With less than 5 percent of the global population, the United States holds almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

The rate of incarceration, moreover, is divided unevenly across gender and racial/ethnic lines; most of the growth in incarceration has taken place among minorities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that tracks the numbers of incarcerated and the national effects of incarceration, a black boy born in 2001 has a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison; a Latino boy born the same year has a 1-in-6 chance. By contrast, their white counterpart faces only a 1-in-17 chance.

In her book, Alexander presents similar statistics and places the blame on the “tough on crime” policies of the “War on Drugs.” As she writes, “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” Current drug policies may be good for political platforms and for garnering votes, but they have led to an overburdened and saturated incarceration system that unduly affects minorities. Moreover, the privatization of prisons has led to a decrease in government oversight and an increase in the business of imprisonment. For private corporations, in short, more prisoners mean more money. “Once you’re labeled a felon,” Alexander says, “the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal.” In short, these laws and policies have led to an era of the new Jim Crow: a “stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, came to the book through her work as a lawyer. Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, she earned a law degree at Stanford and went on to direct the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Northern California. As she details in the book, her time with the ACLU changed her view of the criminal justice system. “It was not just another institution infected with racial bias,” she writes, “but rather a different beast entirely.” As she dedicated more time to issues of race and civil liberties, Alexander became increasingly appalled at the racial disparities of incarceration and the profoundly negative results that followed. This book, she writes, was born out of her anger at this injustice; it is meant to bring to light what many have tried to hide.

Rosemary Parish was horrified when she read Alexander’s book. White and 60 years of age, the Princeton resident took three months to get through the book’s contents. Every chapter, she told me, was difficult to stomach. Each statistic only further incensed her anger. Unable to keep the information to herself, she began encouraging others to read the book as well. Motivated by the injustices that Alexander had detailed, Parish and her growing cadre of readers joined local community outreach groups and encouraged them to tackle the issue of mass incarceration. Some groups were interested but already had their own projects in line. “I stepped back one day and wondered,” Parish said, “why not start with the congregations?”

Beginning with her own congregation, the regal Trinity Episcopal Church, Parish networked out to encourage other congregations to do their part, seeing churches as integral to “consciousness-raising.” Another establishment institution, Nassau Presbyterian, put on a six-week course to educate congregants about what the Children’s Defense Fund has come to call the “cradle to prison pipeline”: a path that begins with marginalized lives in struggling schools, proceeds to difficulties in finding employment, and ultimately ends with time in prison. Churches in Trenton also developed listening circles where congregants could come and voice their problems with family members in prison, and several other congregations began developing reading groups centered on Alexander’s book. Religious groups were an essential part of Parish’s vision since, as she said, “At the root of this is a moral question.”

By the fall of 2012, Parish helped form “The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow Princeton Chapter,” a coalition of congregations, arts and educational organizations, and other community institutions dedicated to addressing the moral issues surrounding mass incarceration, a term Yale sociologist Christopher Wildeman calls “an American experiment,” one that is “defined by comparatively and historically extreme rates of imprisonment … among young, African American men living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.” The reading event that Fleming opened was the first public event of the group.

The Princeton activists are just part of the church and community activism across the country that has been prompted by Alexander’s book. When The New Press, which published The New Jim Crow, decided to issue Alexander’s book three years ago, they began with a conservative run of 3,000 copies. The book quickly exceeded expectations and turned into a phenomenon; according to the publisher, the book has currently sold close to 250,000 copies. Alexander rapidly became a social justice celebrity, an icon of a cause célèbre, and The New Press was overrun with requests from people and groups wanting to do something, though not always knowing what that something should be.

So great was the attention that The New Press created a part-time staff position just to address these requests. As the outreach coordinator for the book, Zakia Henderson-Brown’s job is to field these calls for action and help individuals connect for more concerted mobilization. “People are largely self-organized on this, but they are disparate group,” she said. “I try to connect the dots.” As she told me, Alexander (who is currently finishing a sabbatical from OSU) was quickly overwhelmed with the amount of speaking invitations and attention that the book garnered. But the goal was never to make this a one-woman movement. “It can’t center around her,” Henderson-Brown said. “She’s not the movement.” Individuals are often looking for groups to join and many groups are looking for individuals to fill their rosters. “So part of my job is to connect the individuals to the organizations that need capacities,” Henderson-Brown said.

Churches have been an integral organizational link for a lot of the activism that has resulted from the book. The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, has worked with immigrants and prisoners for decades through their program on transforming the criminal justice system. Alexander’s book is on their website as part of their “Healing Justice resources for Quaker congregations.” Riverside Church in New York formed a new prison ministry, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, based on Alexander’s work, and has formed a coalition of groups both within and beyond New York.

Other religious groups have sponsored more grassroots efforts on the topic. The Unitarian Universalist Association, for instance, selected The New Jim Crow as the 2012-13 “Common Read,” a national program for UU congregants to read a chosen book together. As a result, Henderson-Brown told me, the UU response has been significant and has led to many phone calls and e-mails from UU congregations and members. Brigham Johnson, a 52-year-old UU congregant from Santa Monica, California, describes himself as “simply an individual who read the book, was moved, and was in a position to respond.” Encountering the book through the UU Common Read, Johnson said that even though it was by chance he learned about mass incarceration, it was still “crucial that I make the effort to break through to others.” Johnson has remained active, putting together a website and creating the Twitter handle @StopWarOnDrugs.

The book has also prompted other larger efforts at mobilizing churches and congregants. Inspired by the book, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC), a network of thousands of progressive black churches, has chosen mass incarceration as one of its main priorities for the coming years. According to Iva E. Carruthers, general secretary of the Chicago-based SDPC, many in the SDPC had done some kind of work in prison reform, but it was really Alexander’s book that served as the “catalyst” for the organization’s focus on the topic. Alexander attended the SDPC’s annual conference when the book came out and has remained an active part of the SDPC’s work. SDPC wrote a study guide of the text that other church groups and organizations around the country now use. Carruthers estimates that the SDPC has made the issue of mass incarceration central to thousands of churches across numerous denominations in almost every state.

At the root of many of these campaigns and movements is, of course, the important role of congregations and the particular individuals in them that have been moved to act. More than ten years ago, Joanne Epply-Schmidt, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of New Jersey and an affiliate of Princeton’s Trinity Episcopal Church, was a storyteller working with an organization that sought to improve literacy in underprivileged schools. Joanne worked in particular with young men in the Mercer County Youth Detention Center; she stayed on at that location until the program (and others like it in New Jersey) was shut down in 2009.

Through her work there, Joanne became motivated to address the issue of mass incarceration. “I made a promise to my students that I would fight for them on the outside,” she said. Years later, Epply-Schmidt joined Parish and others from the New Jim Crow Project and took charge to organize the seven-day read-out of Alexander’s book. After noting the relative silence in churches, especially predominantly white churches, on the issue of mass incarceration, Epply-Schmidt shared with me why she saw religious groups as being integral. “The church ought to stand for justice, the church ought to stand for righteousness,” she said. “This, to me, is the church’s purpose. Sometimes we do it, sometimes we don’t. Now’s the time that we’ve got to do it.”                           

Alfredo Garcia is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University.