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Mandatory minimum sentences have played into the incarceration of millions of young black men. And with his announcement, Attorney General Holder joins a movement of African-American leaders pushing for major reforms in drug sentencing. But there was a time when African-American politicians, clergy and civil right leaders were strong supporters of these laws. More from WNYC's Arun Venugopal.
ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: Four years ago, New York Governor David Paterson stood in a drug treatment center in Queens and made history.
DAVID PATERSON: And finally, today, on this sunny day, with the stroke of a pen, we will end the regime of the Rockefeller drug laws.
VENUGOPAL: New York's first black governor rolled back the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, first passed in 1973, that disproportionately locked up African-American men. But now, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder argues that Rockefeller-style laws should be eased at the federal level as well.
ERIC HOLDER: The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There has been kind of a decimation of certain communities - in particular, communities of color.
VENUGOPAL: This idea that strict drug laws have done more harm than good in black America is pretty common these days. But early on, many African-American leaders championed those same tough-on-crime policies. 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 called for drug dealers to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
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REVEREND GEORGE MCMURRAY: 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. So instead of robbing and selling dope, I want to go to school and to live a good life.
VENUGOPAL: 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. Michael Javen Fortner is a political scientist and historian from Rutgers University, himself African-American.
MICHAEL JAVEN FORTNER: The silent black majority of Harlem and New York City felt constantly accosted by drug addicts, by pushers, by crime.
VENUGOPAL: 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 best-selling book "The New Jim Crow," had minimized 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.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The drug war was motivated by racial politics, not drug crime. The drug war was launched as a way of trying to appeal to poor and working class white voters saying, we're going to get tough on them, put them back in their place. And them was not-so-subtly defined as African-Americans.
VENUGOPAL: But Fortner is not the only historian who has documented the black push for strict sentencing laws. Still, he admits his account is deeply controversial.
FORTNER: If you think that everything can be explained by sort of white backlash, if you think the racial order is somehow omnipresent and is all-powerful and is always trying to re-establish its power and legitimacy, then you hate what I do.
VENUGOPAL: Voting records show that many black lawmakers supported some of the most punitive drug war era laws in America. But even some people who have long opposed harsh sentencing laws understand where supporters were coming from. Reverend Herbert Daughtry is a longtime pastor in New York and once heroin addict who served time. He's convinced that black leaders who embraced the drug war did serious harm to the community, but says a lot of African-Americans were desperate for ways to make their neighborhoods safe again.
REVEREND HERBERT DAUGHTRY: If you're the victim, then you don't want to hear anything about treatment, you don't want to hear nothing about - all you want to know is get this guy off the street.
VENUGOPAL: But eventually, even some of the staunchest supporters of mandatory minimums saw that these policies had badly backfired, in part because they lumped addicts and small-time dealers with drug kingpins and violent gang leaders, and consigned countless African-American men to prisons across the country. For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal in New York.