After winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song as the co-writer of “Glory” from the film Selma, the Grammy-winning rapper Common—whose birth name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.—gave an impassioned speech on the struggle for freedom throughout the world.
“The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to the people in Hong Kong, protesting for democracy,” said Common during Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. The bridge he mentions is the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge that civil rights marchers crossed on the way to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965.
The Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama brought national attention to the barriers to voting black Americans in the Jim Crow South faced. “Glory” was the theme song to Selma, the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic depicting the events leading up to the marches, which spurred then-president Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act.
But Common is no stranger to activism. The rapper—whose lyrics in “Glory” refer to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. last year after a police officer killed an unarmed black teen—also pressed for criminal justice reforms in New York City when a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict a police officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold, causing his death. Garner was also a black, unarmed man.
In December last year, Common appeared at a press conference held at City Hall, calling for the New York City police department to fire the officer involved in Garner’s death, Daniel Pantaleo, as well as for the state to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate cases of police use-of-force.
Common said he was especially moved after meeting Garner’s son, Eric Garner, Jr. “I stand in front of a young man who lost his father for no reason,” said Common, according to a New York Daily News report. “We can’t allow this to happen ever again. America should be ashamed of itself. The police department should be ashamed of itself.”
Nine-time Grammy winner John Legend was the other co-writer of “Glory.” In his acceptance speech, he touched upon burgeoning civil rights and criminal justice issues in the country today.
“Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today,” Legend said, referring to controversial voter ID laws in some states that may disqualify minorities from voting.
Legend also spoke about the country’s high incarceration rates of black men. “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850,” said Legend.
He was right. The U.S. has more than 2.2 million people behind bars, the most in the world, followed by China (about 1.7 million) and Russia (over 670,000), according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.
A 2014 analysis by the fact-checking website PolitiFact concluded that 1.68 million black men are under state and federal criminal justice supervision—including people in prisons, on probation, or on parole. With the jail population included, the number rises to 1.88 million, compared to roughly 872,000 male African-American slaves in 1850, according to census data at the time.
The rate of incarceration among black men ages 20 to 34 is more than six times that of white men: 11.4 percent of the black male population, compared to 1.8 percent of the white male population, according to an analysis by the Population Reference Bureau.
Legend has tried his hand at tackling mass incarceration himself. In 2007, Legend launched the Show Me campaign to advocate for quality education for all, as a means for impoverished children to break out of poverty and avoid becoming involved in the criminal justice system.
The campaign’s website says it works to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term to describe the trend of public school children being punished for unruly behavior with suspension, expulsion, and jail time. Many of these at-risk children live in poverty, have learning disabilities, or have experienced abuse and neglect.
This year, the campaign will launch a five-year initiative to support state and federal reforms that reduce incarceration rates and invest in education and rehabilitation services, according to the website.