A few months after taking office, New York Governor David Paterson stood in a drug treatment center in Queens, and made history.
"And finally today, on this sunny day, in April of 2009, with the stroke of a pen, we will end the regime of the Rockefeller drug laws," said Paterson, drawing cheers.
With that gesture, New York’s first black governor rolled back the mandatory minimum sentencing laws first passed in 1973 that disproportionately locked up African-American men.
Earlier this week, another black leader, US Attorney General Eric Holder, argued that Rockefeller-style laws should be eased at the federal level as well.
"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder told NPR. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."
This notion that strict drug laws have done more harm than good in black America is widely-accepted. Black elected officials have been instrumental in reforming strict sentencing laws in recent years.
What's less well-known is that early on, many African-American leaders championed those mandatory minimum sentences and other tough-on-crime policies. These efforts could be seen at the federal and state levels, as well as across black communities such as Harlem.
Grappling with a Drug Epidemic
"African-Americans are portrayed as passive victims to this, as the prison boom just washed over their communities, as if they were just completely victimized," said Vanessa Barker, author of 'The Politics of Imprisonment.' "I find that stance dehumanizing, I also find that stance empirically, historically inaccurate."
Barker and others argue that in the 1960s, residents of black neighborhoods felt constantly under threat from addicts and others associated with the drug trade, and their calls for increased safety measures resonated at community meetings, in the pages of black newspapers like 'The Amsterdam News,' and in churches.
Reverend George McMurray was lead pastor at the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem in the 1970s when the city faced a major heroin epidemic. He wanted convicted drug dealers to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
"When you send a few men to prison for life, someone's going to pass the word down, 'It's not too good over here,'" McMurray said. "So instead of robbery and selling dope, [they'll think] ‘I want to go to school and live a good life...’"
Black support for the drug war didn't just grow in New York. At the federal level, members of the newly-formed Congressional Black Caucus met with President Richard Nixon, urging him to ramp up the drug war as fast as possible. But the drug epidemic was especially bad in New York, and especially in black neighborhoods.
"The silent black majority of Harlem and New York City felt constantly accosted by drug addicts, by pushers, by crime," said Michael Javen Fortner, a political scientist and historian from Rutgers University who recently wrote on the issue.
White Backlash vs. Black Empowerment
But the notion that black leaders played a pivotal role in the drug war is controversial. Some black historians, including Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling book "The New Jim Crow," have downplayed the role of black America in promoting and sustaining the drug war. Alexander declined to be interviewed for this story, but in public comments she has portrayed the drug war as the creation of white politicians, deliberately targeting black Americans.
"The drug war was motivated by racial politics, not drug crime," said Alexander. "The drug war was launched as a way of trying to appeal to poor and working class white voters, as a way to say, "We're going to get tough on them, put them back in their place -- and 'them' was not so subtly defined as African Americans."
Fortner disagrees, and said his research on the prominent role black leaders played in fostering the drug war is unpopular among those who subscribe to the backlash theory.
"If you think that everything can be explained by white backlash, if you think the white racial order is somehow omni-present and all-powerful, and is always trying to re-establish itself, then you hate what I do,” he said.
Fortner said black leaders in the wake of the Civil Rights movement were newly energized, and used their social and political infrastructure to push for tougher approaches to crime in their neighborhoods.
A Class Divide
Today, Deborah Peterson Small heads a group called Break the Chains, but she spent years fighting for reform of the Rockefeller drug laws. In the 1960s and 70s, she said, there were different camps fighting over the issue within the black community: radicals and others who worried about the urban poor, and the black political establishment, which represented the working and middle class.
"I like to call them the Black Victorians, who had always taken a very bourgeois position around the need for black people to adhere as much as possible to middle-class standards of behavior as one of the prerequisites for being able to be fully integrated into American society," said Small.
The debate leading up to passage of the laws in 1973 was fierce, exposing rifts within the community. Some black lawmakers dismissed Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's black allies as "palace pets." Others, like Brooklyn’s Vander L. Beatty, one of the top black legislators at the time, said the Rockefeller laws didn’t go far enough. He wanted the death penalty.
"These people had fallen under the spell of the law and order people," said Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a Brooklyn pastor and one of the longest-serving church leaders in the city.
As a former heroin addict who'd served time for armed robbery, Daughtry felt that many lawmakers were misguided in their push for imprisonment.
"If you’re the victim, then you don’t want to hear anything about treatment, just ‘get this guy off the street.’ So there was that kind of support coming [for the Rockefeller laws]. But there was a significant number of people who wanted treatment."
Black Leaders Embrace Reform
In the 1980s, sales of crack cocaine exploded, as did the amount of federal dollars spent on enforcement. In 1989, nearly a million people were arrested on drug charges, more than twice the number just 7 years earlier. Meanwhile, it had become increasingly apparent that blacks were being incarcerated at much higher rates than whites arrested for drug times. Some Congressional black leaders, like Rep. Charles Rangel, of Harlem, continued to push for tough sentencing standards. But it was around this time, said Small, that other black officials started to finally embrace reforms.
"Not only because their constituents were complaining about it, but also because there was a political effect," she said. "The increasing population of New Yorkers in prison worked to the benefit of upstate politicians and to the detriment of New York City politicians because the resources, the dollars from the state followed the prisoners up there, and it meant money that was leaving the community leaving, not just people leaving."
She said that black communities were also haunted by the increased involvement of children in the drug trade, a strategic decision by dealers who knew that minors wouldn't be ensnared by mandatory minimum sentences.
Although black elected officials seized upon drug reform, Fortner said it's important for African Americans to discuss why the drug war happened, and the role their leaders played in its creation.
"People worry that talking black on black crime, that moves the agenda from talking about other problems," said Fortner.
However, he argues that in order to have a "thorough debate or dialogue about the future of criminal justice, we have to deal with racism in the criminal justice system, but also with the fact that working class and middle-class people are dealing with crime."
Please listen to the audio story, above. This story was reported and produced in collaboration with the Prison Time Media Project, a service of North Country Public Radio