Injustice and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (with Dwayne Betts)
Jun 3 2024

DALL·E-2024-06-02-12.05.06-A-square-image-depicting-a-young-black-man-in-prison-sitting-on-his-bed-in-a-dimly-lit-cell.-He-has-a-thoughtful-hopeful-expression-on-his-face-and.jpeg When poet, lawyer, and MacArthur Fellow Dwayne Betts was imprisoned for nine years at the age of 16 for carjacking, he only wept twice. One of those times was when he read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In this powerful conversation with EconTalk's Russ Roberts, Betts explains why he cried, what he learned from King, King's urgency in the face of injustice, and Betts's thoughts on writing the introduction to a new volume of King's letter.

Glenn Loury on Race, Inequality, and America
Economist and author Glenn Loury of Brown University talks about race in America with EconTalk host Russ Roberts.
Jason Riley on Race in America
Journalist and author Jason Riley talks about race with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Riley argues that the challenges facing Black America go beyond racial discrimination and the threat of police violence. He argues that both the history of Black Americans...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Greg Eubank
Jun 3 2024 at 5:55pm

Hi Russ, one thing I always look forward to Monday’s PM is knowing Econ Talk is published and I can listen to it during a workout.  Today’s podcast was very enjoyable and educational as always. I, like you have been around for a while.  If G-d allows, I will be 72 in August.  I mention because, like you, I remember seeing signs of “whites only” as a young child.  (I grew up and still live in Virginia). I remember when MLK was murdered.  I remember eventually understanding what he was all about and why.  I remember being in high school when schools were first integrated and various fights that happened.  Eventually most everyone at least sort of learned we’re all just people created Imago Dei.  Dr. King’s life’s work was about ending segregation and the importance of  “content of character vs color of skin.”  I was sort of hoping in your conversation with Mr. Betts, that what’s happening today would be discussed:  in some universities….separate graduations, separate dorms, etc. Very, very concerning to many of us. He is a very thoughtful, interesting, intellectual man.  I think it would be wonderful to know his thoughts around the current state vs what MLK believed.  Maybe next time that could be discussed?  Maybe we can hope that the next time, it won’t be necessary but I kinda doubt it.  I hope I’m wrong.

Thank you for allowing me to post on your site.

Eric Bierker
Jun 4 2024 at 8:03am

This was a great listen. Thanks.

Shalom Freedman
Jun 4 2024 at 9:44am

This was an especially interesting conversation about a great man. Dwayne Betts explanation of what being in prison means and his telling of his life experience was richly informative and moving. However, I felt one important source of Dr. King’s writing and thinking was not mentioned the Biblical literature he was so deeply steeped in. The language and cadence of his poetic speech have their deepest source in the Bible. There is too no mention of his great model of freedom the Biblical story of the people of Israel’s liberation from slavery. And too no hint of a mention of his support of the modern state of Israel.



Jun 5 2024 at 12:00am

Wow. Great episode. The top episode of the year for me and hard to see another beating it.


required, not displayed
required, not displayed

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Watch this podcast episode on YouTube:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

More related EconTalk podcast episodes, by Category:

* As an Amazon Associate, Econlib earns from qualifying purchases.

TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: March 9, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is March 9th, 2024. My guest is poet, lawyer, and author Dwayne Betts. This is Dwayne's fourth appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in January of 2023 talking about beauty, prison, and redaction. He was a MacArthur Fellow in 2021. He is the founder of the Freedom Reads project, which puts Great Books in prison. We'll talk about that later or maybe earlier. Dwayne, welcome back to EconTalk.

Dwayne Betts: It's my absolute, absolute pleasure.


Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is Martin Luther King Jr.'s [MLK's] "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and your introduction to a new volume of King's work. How did this come about?

Dwayne Betts: It's actually remarkable because in my life, all good things that I've gotten--and I swear this is true--have come when I tried to do something for others. And so, for the first time, the King family had okayed a collection of books, individual books to come out that were based on the speeches. And, the first book was I Have a Dream, and the introduction was written by King's children. And, it's cool. The book is actually paginated and laid out as King spoke, so you could actually read it and kind of embody his voice, almost like a poem, almost like really living in the words. They wanted to get the books into prison.

And my friend, Brother Yao, Hoke S. Glover, who I met when I came home from prison, less than a month out of prison, I had read all of the books on this. He was selling books on a cart and I had read, like, all of them. He said, 'What college do you go to?' I hadn't finished college. He said, 'What school you go to?' I looked. I was like, 'Look, man, I just got out of prison.' And then, he asked me, 'So, you're a poet?' Who asked that question after hearing the word 'prison'?

I told him yes, and we developed a friendship; and I ended up working at this black-owned bookstore called Karibu Books. So, much of my life came from that. But, he knew the people at Harper Collins and they wanted to get the book into prisons. And, so, he introduced me to the folks and we were having a conversation. They told me about the project and I said, 'Wait a minute. Did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ever write anything about prison?'

And, mind you, I know he did, but I must've just been so overwhelmed with the moment thinking that--because I could say we are going to put 1500 copies of this book in the prisons across this country. And, it felt meaningful. Because that meant that I did it with debt[?], I did it with Primo Levi. It meant that I was doing this thing that mattered and I was doing it for the kaleidoscope of the world that I cared about. They said, 'Yeah, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."' And, I said, 'What kind of fool am I?'

And I said, 'Wait a minute. Let me ask you something.' Because they had people writing the introductions. I said, 'Does anybody write the introduction for that one? Because I should write that one. I'm going to tell you why.' But, they said, 'Well, hold on, let us just check real quick.' And, they was, like, 'Strangely, we have people for all of them except that one.'

I was, like, 'Look, let me tell you a story. Now I get locked up on December 8th, and December 9th, I go to court and I find out that I'm going to miss Christmas.'

And, I start crying uncontrollably, man, because the new PlayStation was coming out, and I just knew I was going to get one. But, also, man, I was not going to see my mom until the New Year. That's what they told me. That lets you know that I had no understanding that I wouldn't see my mom for a lot of New Years. But I told him, I explained that I only cried twice in prison, and it was that day; and then it was the next year, I was on the top bunk. And, it was one of these MLK days and I had heard this story time and time again, but, man, that day I heard it--Bus Boycott, Edmund Pettus Bridge, civil rights movement. And, I couldn't stop crying.

I mean, I knew I had just wasted my life, man, for a pistol and $10. And, I tell them this story: I said, 'Man, I got to write this introduction.' And they, like, 'Cool story, but family, permissions, I don't know if this is going to happen, bro. But, I like you. We like you. We like Freedom Reads. Let us check it out. Let us see if the family will approve this.' And, I thought to myself, 'Why--why would they approve me?' So, I let it go. And three, four days later, they hit me up and they said, 'Dwayne, you wouldn't believe this. You were on a short list of people already approved by the family to write any of these introductions.'

I have a hard time believing that. In prison, you got to have faith especially when you're the most vulnerable person in prison. And, that's where I was at least amongst the top 2% of most vulnerable people in the penitentiary--120 pounds, 16 years old in a state that I wasn't from. No friends, no cousins, no family. You got to have faith, you know. But, you come home and you think everything you do on the outside is governed by your own hands.

And every once in a while, it's just remarkable the way I get reminded that, man, who would have thought this would have happened? And that's the story.

Russ Roberts: Amazing. We've talked about this in previous episodes, but you were in prison--you said for a pistol and $10. You had carjacked someone. You were 16, I think. And, how long did you spend in prison?

Dwayne Betts: Yeah, I was 16. Carjacked this guy. And, I carjacked two women. I hate saying that because it's like doubling down on ignorance. But, I was sentenced--I pled guilty and I didn't know how much time I would be sentenced to. And, I stood in front of the judge facing life and he sentenced me to nine years in prison. He told me, 'I'm under no illusion that sending you to prison will help, but you could get something out of it if you want.' I never forgot that and I hope I got something out of it. But I spent about eight years and three months inside.

And, I came home on the most poetic day on the calendar. I came home on March 4th, which is the only date that is both a date and a command. I swear, man: I'm telling you, God has a sense of humor. Yeah.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about King's letter. I have to say, reading it in 2024 feels like time travel. It was written, I think, in 1963, which is not so long ago. I was nine years old. I remember Martin Luther King Jr. as a figure, as a person in the news. But that letter reads from such a different time. He's fighting segregation in Alabama, and elsewhere, of course. He's fighting the mistreatment of blacks and the humiliation of blacks in segregated water fountains, segregated restaurants, segregated hotels--you name it.

That's the first part that's time travel. Again, I'm old enough to remember. I had been in the South as a boy and I remember water fountains that were for whites only.

But, the other part that's time-travel-y for me in that essay, his letter, is he writes a lot about the church and religion as a vibrant part of American life. And, it is much less so, both the church and religion.

But, let's begin with a little bit of history. King is in jail. Why is he in jail and why is he writing this letter?

Dwayne Betts: He's in jail for being a part of a nonviolent demonstration against segregation. And what's interesting, though, is that, for me, the reminder is that the most acceptable way to really torture somebody and make them suffer has always been incarceration. But, what's telling in this case is that the imprisonment was really also meant to shame. And, I think that everybody who was a civil right protester at that time had to accept the idea that they would face an experience that they had lived their whole life finding abhorrent. And, it's kind of interesting in that way.

But, he's in a Birmingham jail; and he's being criticized. They wrote an op-ed. It was eight clergyman, and it was moderate clergy. They were white religious leaders of the South who made a public statement of concern and caution; and was telling about King's responses that--it's time travel but it's not. Because, once you understand how it was written, you realize that this is in some ways Navalny. This is in some ways some kid in solitary confinement. This is in some ways Guantanamo Bay. Which is to say that he is writing it on scraps of paper and anything he can find; and the urgency in it is the same urgency that we have whenever we want to communicate.

And actually, I find that he honored those eight men in writing a letter. He says: 'If I were to pause and answer every criticism'--that's so tongue-in-cheek. It's so beautifully rhetorical, right? He says, like, 'I don't have enough time to talk to people about this work. But, if I talk to you, then I know I'm not just talking to you. I am talking to history. I am talking to the world.' He said, 'I take you serious enough to respond.'

And, I do think the greatest care we can pay is attention. And to pay that kind of attention in a longhand letter written without the aid of books, without the aid of his secretaries, without the aid of dictation, I find completely remarkable.

But even more than that, I find it remarkable that--now, we live in a world that is so angry, right? And he was able to write this letter with, I think, deep compassion; and not just deep compassion for the black folks in the South, but I think deep compassion for this country. Which, you say that religion has kind of--it's not as vibrant today as before. It's true.

I also think probably when our struggles were so obvious that it was just much easier to pick winners and losers. And, nowadays, I feel like it's much more challenging to name what the side of justice looks like.

Sometimes we just perform our opinions as if they come from--I do it, too, though; so I won't begrudge anybody else. But, it doesn't feel like it when I read this letter. When I had to go back and read it again, it felt like somebody writing from a deep, deep sense of conviction. And, somebody who spent so many words--he's, like, 'I don't have enough time.' And, this is, like, the most thorough letter that one could imagine. It's actually like a tutorial about what it means to engage in nonviolent protest. It's a beautiful thing because it seems like he says: 'I don't think you know what we're doing or why. And, so, let me tell you both.'

And, I guess it becomes a challenge. I wonder what the eight men--those religious leaders who he wrote to--did in the face of such clear and unrelenting both argument, but also just that gut-wrenching 'let me tell you why I'm here.'


Russ Roberts: The eloquence is astounding, and as you point out, he's entitled to a rant. But it's not a rant. It's a--it's really a love letter to--not a love letter to the clergy, but it is a love letter to justice in his country. And, it is filled with compassion for those two things, and it's quite beautiful. Of course, we'll link to it. You can read it--it's spectacular--if you've not read it before.

It's not long but it's not short, right? As you say, the thoroughness is astounding in terms of rhetoric and themes to explain and justify why he has done what he has done and why he will continue to do what he will do.

But, what are some of the themes of his argument, his defense of what he's been doing?

Dwayne Betts: I think the biggest theme is time. You know: When is it time to protest?

And, it's interesting because, like, see, the beauty of it is when you say, when he says a line that says something like we know through--I'll read it directly.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

And, what's really interesting here is that it was easy to name the oppressed and the oppressor. My mom was three years old in 1963, and I was born in 1980, which means from 1963 to 1980, this world, this country changed radically. It changed so much so that you can't even use those words in the same way anymore. You can't say in the same way--you cannot say that black Americans are the oppressed. You cannot say that white Americans are the oppressor.

So, for me, it's just humbling to say that we changed the world. We changed this country.

And, what he says, though, is that I have never been a part of a movement to change the world that happened on a timeline that the oppressor set.

And, I think that is the first point, because I do think that we are thinking about dignity and we are thinking about what people have the right to do.

And, those eight clergy was saying: 'Well, you have the right to freedom. You have the right to justice. But, you don't have the right to disruption.'

And I think that he just found that insulting. Because, to tell somebody who is not oppressed, who is clearly--and is also not the oppressor, but they standing around watching. And, I think he's, like, 'Wait a minute, you don't get to say it.' And to me, that theme there is the one that gets you that notion: Justice too long-delayed is justice denied.

And, so, for me, that is one of the dominant themes.

I think the other theme, though, that I go back to, really, is I ask myself what am I doing in the world? It is when he says, 'Well, you want to know why we do this?' Now, I came out of prison and I remember going to church one day. Right? And, it was on an MLK day. I was 27 years old. And he said, 'Stand up if you're over 26.' And, you know, it's the first time that I felt like a man amongst men. And I was proud. I stand up with everybody else.

And, he said, 'By the time Dr. Martin Luther King was 27 years old, he had already led the Bus Boycotts. He had already faced death.' And, I thought to myself, 'Wow. What have I done with my life, again?' And so, when he says, 'Why sit-insurance? Why marches? Why all of these things? Why not just negotiate?' And then, he frames out what it means to take direct action, what it means to take those steps--from study, from purification, from being prepared to understand why you are going to break a law and knowing you are going to break a law--I feel like that's one of the major themes, too. Because, if you weren't there, it's hard to even understand. I think for me, it was hard to understand the work that went into this. It was hard to know that this was a thing that wasn't just developed overnight.

And so, I think one of the other themes is that: and this is work, and you should respect my work.

I do think that he was saying to these clergy, 'You don't know my work. And, the fact that you don't know it and would criticize it and not respect it, that's actually worse than standing on the sideline.' That's like standing on the sideline and then pulling out your trumpet as if you were invited to get on the stage with Miles Davis. It's like, you weren't invited to this party. Right?

And, I think that--that's that other theme in there.

And then, finally, for me, I should just say you're talking about six pages, single spaced, written from a prison. One could argue that every single paragraph has 50 themes that we could spend the entire day discussing. But it's this thing that I come back to: when he's, like, 'But, let me also tell you the obligation and duty of the contemporary church to act. Let me say that there was a time when the church was powerful, and the church was powerful because the church was a mover in the lives of people.'

And, you could substitute church for government. You could substitute church for family. You could substitute church for your mother, your father. But, I think the point is that he was calling all of us to account for the ways in which we had allowed ourselves to not be accountable for what happens tomorrow, and all of the excuses we had for not being accountable.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about a couple of those themes. The first, the theme of time, which is basically that--the white clergymen, in their piece, it essentially said, 'Just wait. Just wait.' And, King's answer is: Waiting often means never.

And, I think about the Civil War--500,000, 600,000 people dead. And people have said--and I think they've said it on this program over the 18 years; and, I know people have said it elsewhere--that slavery's end was inevitable. And, rather than the North forcing the Union and ending slavery, they could have just waited and it would have died a natural death.

Well, it's easy to say.

And, of course, there are untold suffering and death in the meanwhile. I'm not suggesting there's a calculus that would help us assess the deaths of 600,000 people on the other side of that.

But certainly it's easy to say, after the fact: 'Well, it would have ended anyway.'

But, we don't know that in any real sense. And, King says in the following way, he says, quote--and this, by the way is you could call it social science, applied history, whatever you want to call it; it's really beautiful. He says:

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God. And, without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Dwayne Betts: He can write.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. The rhythm--and, like you say, it's a poem. It's got a cadence, a beautiful cadence to it.

I want to read another excerpt about the church, but do you want to react to that at all? Besides he can write? Yes, he can.

Dwayne Betts: Yeah. But, also, I think that you hear it, man, and it takes you to a destination.

And, he was sayin', 'You know, he could name this thing, even if other folks don't expect us to name it.'

And, I should just say, also, in that naming, right? He also doesn't--it's not just, it's not an indictment of white people. He names the names of people who were on that journey with him. He names the names of the white clergy who were marching with them, who were tossed in the roach-infested cells with them in [?].

And so, the beautiful thing about that is when you take it out of context, you might imagine that we were talking about something that didn't look like what he wanted America to look like. But in fact, it was.

And, it is beautiful because he says, 'Let me give you this beautiful image.' And, then, he'll come back and give you the names. He'd be like, 'Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James Dobbs, these people who I've never heard of, who I don't know exist. But, when you read it again and again, you realize, 'Oh, nah. He's making a point. I am disappointed in you, eight. I am not disappointed in everybody.

Russ Roberts: And, he does not name them.

Dwayne Betts: Nope. Which is so--that is, like, the mark of humility. But also it is the mark of: 'I will not turn this into something that is actually about you. Thank you for being in my vehicle, my vessel, the catalyst'--I was about to say the Cadillac, 'that's driving me to the urgency of this message; but thank you for being the catalyst.'

That's actually really beautiful. Because most of us--I know I would--I'd be naming the names of everybody that's offended me. Especially these days.


Russ Roberts: But, he denies them immortality, and he gives immortality to the comrades who stood with him--the brothers and sisters who stood at his side in the struggle. But, these eight are nameless. And I think that's--it's very appropriate.

Then he goes on--I mentioned the change in the role of the church in American life--and he says, quote--this is just a--absolutely magnificent two sentences, three sentences, got a semicolon, two sentences. Quote:

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.


So, that contrasted a thermometer and a thermostat: a reaction to a mover, a cause, a force for change. It's just lovely.

Dwayne Betts: And, the rhyme of thermometer, thermostat.

You know, he wasn't that great a student. I mean, this is the wild thing about it, though: The King biography won a Pulitzer Prize this year. And I remember reading it and thinking, 'Wait a minute. King went to college at 15. But he was a poor student at Morehouse.' And, it's interesting that it was going north to Boston that really made him think about racism in a real way down South. He actually was resisting the idea of following in his father's footsteps.

And, amazing thing about it is: What does it mean for us--you know, when we think about how we name people as brilliant, how we name people as gifted, how we name people as ready? And we expect them to be remarkable at 12, at 13, at 14. We even got all these, 'Oh, if you don't win a National Merit Scholarship, don't expect to go to college.' What? 'Look, if you're not brilliant, by the time you learn how to drive?'

I mean, my kid is 16 and he is beautiful. My oldest is 16. My youngest is 12. And they are both beautiful. They are both intelligent. They are both empathetic. They are my heart.

And yet, I know that they are so weighed down by the expectation that because their father went to Yale Law School, they are supposed to go to Yale Law School.

Some people also think that because their father went to prison, they supposed to go to prison. At least they know that that is absurd.

But, like, imagine, man: imagine that we would not have gotten King. We would not have gotten King if the conditions of the 1950s and the 1940s demanded that you breathe excellence before you learn what excellence means in the world you want to live in. Man, yo--we got some issues.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And it's--those empirical regularities are a burden on many. And it's--there are people who do great things after their time--after the time they're, quote, "supposed to."


Russ Roberts: I want to read another quote about the church, which I thought was amazing. He says:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

End of quote.

Dwayne Betts: Can I say something? I thought that you ended the quote a sentence early. I thought that the last sentence was you. Literally, I thought that the last sentence was you and I was about to say, 'No, I'm telling you: when I came out of prison': I mean, the place that I was least welcome was the churches in my community. Because I hadn't gone to Yale yet. I hadn't won awards yet. I couldn't serve because I was a convict. Literally: I could not serve because I was a convict. And I won't--I'm not begrudging anybody, actually, these days. I'm not begrudging anybody. But I'm going to speak the truth; and I'm going to tell you, I felt it in my soul.

And I'm not really religious--for a thousand reasons or none really. I think I found more faith in the last few months than I had since prison. I don't think that that means I'm going to pick up a Bible. It does mean that I'm saddened by the fact that I can't name an institution that I'm a part of that pushes me and demands that I be more--than I've been in my worst moments.

And, you know: I could choose to go to church. I'm not trying to--but something's happened. And I don't know if it's progress. I don't know. But, I've never had a time in my life where I felt like--I mean, this is talking about the Civil Rights Movement, and it was easy to name that oppression.

I mean, we had great folks in the church. I know that. I could name some of them, but I don't know if it's ever been that institution in my life even when I was going on a regular basis with my folks. It was never: Talk about the war on drugs. It's just, talk about drug addicts. I mean, I have--there's some vibrancy. There's some churches that was really about that work.

But I don't know. I don't know. I really thought that you had said that last sentence.

It seems like you're going back in time. But then some of it seems like it could have been written 25 minutes ago, both because of the beauty and because of the sentiment still kind of rings maybe even truer.


Russ Roberts: I want to read a paragraph about his observations about America and the role of black people in America. He says, quote:

Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation--and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

End of quote. Unbelievable.

Dwayne Betts: Yeah. And he was right. You know what I mean?

Russ Roberts: He was right.

Dwayne Betts: Can you imagine that? Can you imagine saying something like that, that in writing it in what you know is a public letter?

And I don't think that--I don't know if I believe that when he wrote this letter, he didn't name those men because he didn't want to write them into history. I mean, I actually think he didn't name them out of a spirit of generosity and kindness. You know, I mean, and I think that he was sayin'[?]--then also, he probably did--you have to believe that God has touched you to confront the things that he confronted, and it has to have been the heaviest of burdens.

But, man, to say that and to really believe it--I mean, that's the thing that makes me want to go to church. The thing that gives you the power to say something like that and truly in your soul believe it, I mean that's righteousness there and to be right? Oof. Yeah.


Russ Roberts: Much of the letter is about the moral imperative to disrespect unjust laws. And that disrespect is just. To fail to comply or to forcibly confront--but without violence--the unjust laws. In answering the rhetorical question of what is an unjust law, he basically--he answers that a number of times in the letter, but he basically says, 'We know what an unjust law is.'

And, one of the examples he gives is a law that is passed that is only applicable to a subset of the population. And, there isn't a lot of Friedrich Hayek--F. A. Hayek--in Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter. But that reminded me--ages and ages ago, I interviewed Walter Williams and we talked about Hayek, and Hayek said--I think I'm going to get this right--certainly, Hayek believed this was a good thing, whether he gave it the primacy, I'm going to give it--I might not be accurate--but he said: 'If you could pass one law, what would it be?'

And, Hayek allegedly said that any law that's passed--any legislation, Hayek would have said--that's passed, must apply equally to everyone. Which would rule out, obviously, slavery and a thousand injustices based on race in our past--American past.

But, it also rules out special privileges for politically powerful groups in the tax code and in other subsidies to farmers and certain things that Hayek opposed.

But, I have to confess, as much as I like Hayek, I find it somewhat--something jarring about bringing him up in the conversation about Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter to Birmingham jail.

But, for listeners of EconTalk, I did want to mention that.

Dwayne Betts: But you know--you know, what's interesting though, is like--and one of the struggles--well, one of the things I found beautiful here though is the breadth. You got Saint Augustus--Saint Augustine. You got Aquinas. And you got people I'd never heard of. You got the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. It's, like, a huge breadth. And it's almost as if the thing that he's demonstrating too is: I'm good. He's like, 'Wait a minute. I am actually really good at this.'

But, it also actually poses the question of, because, unfortunately, all of that works if you live in an ideal world. But, we don't live in an ideal world. We live in a non-ideal world.

And so, once you recognize that because laws weren't applied the way they should have been for such a long time, what do you do in the face of it?

And, actually, that's why I think that this becomes the start. Right? But it also becomes the human tragedy because it's quite easy. We recognize white-only water fountains as being so radically offensive to our conscious that it's easy to understand how you push against it.

I mean, I think maybe the challenge of the church today, the challenge of humanity today is that--I don't know, man. I think those unjust laws aren't as easy to point out. I was in a prison and I was listening. And I gave a talk a couple of days--a TEDx talk in a prison or something, on Tuesday. But, all of these men got up and they had powerful stories of suffering and of harm that they'd experienced and that had been inflicted upon their families.

But, the thing I've realized is that because we can't say where it started, so much of what we ended up having to say was that prison was an extension of slavery. It was a product of racism. We talked about the fact that it's more percentage-wise black folks in prison than anybody else. But then it's like, by numbers, there's more white people in prison than anybody else. And, there's poor white folks in prison, too.

And, the challenge is that no matter who was there, like, when I talked, I said, 'Look, I didn't go to prison because of slavery. I didn't go to prison because of racism.' When my son found out I had been incarcerated, he was five years old. And, he said, 'But, Dad, bad people go to prison.' I was, 'I know. I know.' I mean, I know.

And, the challenge is that even if I said the law was unjust that would condemn me to life in prison for carjacking, I still have to figure out: what does protesting that law mean? Does that mean that I'm not accountable? Does that mean that I am good in the face of what I've done?

I talked about my regrets, man, and being in prison and just holding on to these regrets and not really understanding it, but turning my regrets into feathers. I talked about coming home and going to law school and realizing that I wanted to help my friends get out of prison and turning their regrets into more feathers.

And I talked about this question, man, that I struggle with, is: Can you fly when you know that you were on the wrong side of a pistol? You know, like, I wish that I just was confronting whites on Lee Waterfield[?]. I could be holy, man.

And that's why I think the true challenge of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and this pastor asking us to stand if we are above 27, is that: man, the problems of our world today, just, for me, particularly, just don't seem to be as easy to suss out as that.

And that's probably why it feels weird. Because, you know, economics explains everything except justice. I feel like it explains everything except justice.

I mean, I know that I'm on EconTalk; and people are going to say, 'But, wait, Dwayne, you're wrong. Rawls does explain it.' And, now we brought Rawls in, and I will say one thing that was beautiful. We got Rawls in the Freedom Library, right? And we get a letter--and then when we put the Freedom Libraries in the prison, we put them on every cell block. Now, you got these guys that have read Rawls, but they were only reading excerpts in their college course. So, the guy writes me; he said, 'Man, I can't believe y'all got Rawls in here. Man, I got it, but look, you got to know my homeboy got it, too. And, we were arguing about Rawls and for the first time, we could read the whole essay--because we had just had an excerpt.' And, look, I was like, 'I can't wait to tell Russ that they are salivating over Rawls in the penitentiary because of the Freedom Library.'

I said, 'Look, when I say this, I don't care how many episodes I was on. It has to be something that is equivalent to hitting 75 home runs in a season that gets men in prison--that's delighted[?] by Rawls. I feel like I get to be both a philosopher and an economist for the rest of my life just because of that.

Russ Roberts: Yah. If we had a guild, you would be in it.


Russ Roberts: So, we don't have a guild, neither economists nor philosophers. So, but we could have a fake--we'll call it a virtual--EconTalk guild, for people, where there are moments in their life like this one where something delicious happens related to things you've heard on EconTalk. So, I love that. You're in the EconTalk--we'll call it the EconTalk Hall of Fame--

Dwayne Betts: Oh man, I'm delighted--

Russ Roberts: I actually--it is an extraordinary story. Right? It is delicious, is what I would call it. Although I'm more of a Nozick guy than a Rawls guy, I have to confess. I suspect Nozick is not in the library.

Dwayne Betts: No.

Russ Roberts: But, that's a separate question. That's a separate question: Anarchy, State, Utopia. Okay.


Russ Roberts: I want to turn to your introduction and some of your thoughts, although you've talked about some of them already.

It's important to mention that these eight people we'd be picking on--these clergymen who had written an op-ed that King was responding to in his letter. They're moderates. They're not the racists at the end of a leash of a dog that's been unleashed on, on nonviolent protesters. There are plenty of people to[that?] hate, that might deserve scorn. And yet, this letter--the other thing, we've alluded to it, but the other thing that's remarkable about this letter is it is about people who are sort of on your side.

They're on your side in some dimension, but not all the way.

So, you wrote--when you encountered it--you mentioned this earlier that you were reading it in prison. You said: "Dr. King's letter though directly a message to white moderates nearly 50 years later became the message that I needed to hear." And, the white moderates--that that was not you. His letter was written to someone else, and yet somehow you heard it. Why was that the message you needed to hear?

Dwayne Betts: Because, I was reminded, really, the sort of juxtaposition of what I thought my struggle was, right? And I was reminded that--you know, King, he says that, he says,

... when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

And, I was struggling with feeling like nobody. And I was struggling with understanding what I was waiting for. And, of course--I mean, I was in prison. I had read the books about mass incarceration. I had read Worse than Slavery, Slavery by Another Name. I've read these things. I knew who Willie Bosket was.

I understood that children were in prison and that this was horrific. I knew also that the fears that I carry into my cell at night--the disappointment and the shame--it was born out of my own hands. It was born out of the hands of men around me. I knew that it wasn't the white infrastructure that felt like it was dooming me.

And, I will say, man, the one thing that was most beautiful about listening to these brothers speak was--and we were all, you know, white folks, black folks--we were men in prison. And we were all confronting the sense of nobodiness that we were struggling with came out of our actions. And, if we were going to climb out of the abyss of despair, it was going to come out of leaning on each other.

And, I needed to hear that in a way because I needed to be reminded that--man, you can't--you can't, I think, forget that you owe something for a thing that you've done that ruined somebody else, that might have ruined somebody else.

And, you can't forget. I mean, I was a kid, and prison was the most horrifying place that I've been, but the letter reminded me that, like, I could not even pretend like I had dealt with the humiliated day-in and day-out by nagging signs reading White and Colored. If my first name was the N-word, it is because I like to use it. It is not because it's a derogatory thing that was assigned to me.

In prison, they call some men 'boys.' And they call it as a way to characterize somebody as a homosexual. You know, there's nothing wrong with being a homosexual. But why would we live in a world where, like, we have taken on the language--the very language, denigration--that our oppressors once used to oppress others?

And, and, and, and--both that twinning, that failure to realize that, like, that's how you talk to your children?

I mean, I felt like he was talking to me because it was a mirror being held up. And the mirror was asking myself how am I going to square this circle?

If I am going to hold on to these words--if I'm going to hold on to this legacy, this notion of what it means to be--I cannot do it masquerading as if, because I was a child in prison, that meant everything I did was okay.

And, if I've done anything good in the world, honestly, man, it has been because I knew, man, that I could not with a straight face tell my mom I got sentenced. And, when I got sentenced, they kept saying my dad did it because--my dad did it--because my dad wasn't there. My dad wasn't there. My dad wasn't there.

And, I went to a prison and that's where I found my fathers. That's where I found my grandfathers. I could not stand up in court and co-sign that argument. And, I said I don't know why I did it, but it wasn't because I didn't have a father.

And the one thing I got out of prison--man, I talk about all the horror, all the hardship, all the suffering. But, the one thing that I got out of prison was a community of men that imagined that I could be more than I was and that they could be more than they were.

Yeah, I came home on March 4th. I thought I was going to leave prison forever. I've been in more prisons probably than anybody that I know. And, a friend of mine, this guy named Steven Parkhurst, he did seven days shot of 30 years. I sent him an essay I wrote--him and this guy named Richard. I sent them both this essay, sent it to him at like 6:55 in the morning. Steven responds, 'Nobody should have to go to prison to feel good about themselves, but I do, and I expect you understand it.'

And, Richard responded. 'I often tell people I left my soul in prison. If by soul, I mean the best part of myself, the part of myself that is something worth remembering.'

And the thing is, in that moment, in that recognition that I was on the wrong side of the ledger, I had to find a way to love myself and a lot of folks around me enough to return to the most harrowing place I'd ever been.

And, maybe that's something of what King did, because he went to Boston. He realized how harrowing the place he was from actually was, and he returned. But, it's a beautiful thing, that trying to admit who you are and then try to be somebody different.


Russ Roberts: It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rabbi who marched with King by coincidence. He used, of course, a language from 60 years ago that not so acceptable today. But he said, 'A man who is only a man is not a man.'

I think about King and your quote about nobodiness--the state of being no one, of being nobody, of not mattering. So much of what I think of as problematic about modern life is how often we feel like nobody, and how people who feel like nobody have a desperate need to feel like somebody. There's a lot of reasons for this malaise, this disease of nobodiness. It's loss of family, loss of home.

Robert Frost wrote home is--it's the place where when you go there, they have to take you in. But it's, of course, also the place where you're somebody. You're somebody's son, you're somebody's brother, you're somebody's sister, somebody's mother. And as the family has struggled, as the church has struggled, religion has struggled, nobody-ness is more common, and more people feel like nobody, feel like they don't matter. And, as human beings, we desperately strive to matter. And, we look for ways to do that.

Dwayne Betts: You know, somebody said to me--I was in a hard spot and somebody said to me--now, I had wronged this person and I had apologized. And it's funny, because you could apologize 1000 times, but the reality is that you need to be ready to get[?give?] an apology when it needs to be heard. And, the person was like, 'Oh, you got to apologize to me now.' And, I apologized, right? And he was like, 'Then come home.' And I thought, 'Man.' And you know, it's interesting because sometimes it's hard to recognize that feeling of not being wanted, of not being welcome, of not being worthy is really rooted, and who actually welcomes you and who actually names you as worthy.

I find ways to practice telling people that they matter. In the last six months, man, I've read a poem to--in the last three weeks, I read a poem about St. Julian to a nun. I read the same poem to a priest. I read the same poem to an Uber driver at 4:00 in the morning.

You know, I got this book coming out. It's all about dogs. And, the thing is, because it's all about dogs, they just make appearances, but they make appearances in a way that allows me to say the poem. And it's about fear. It's about losing weight. It's about love. But, dogs just keep showing up.

Actually, I should tell you this story, man, I got to tell you this story here. This is a beautiful story. And, it's about dogs.

Russ Roberts: Remember, Dwayne, that many people are listening and not watching. So, if you can tell me that story--I want to hear it, but you got to describe anything you hold up on the camera.

Dwayne Betts with dog statuette

Dwayne Betts: So, I'm holding up--so, one morning I started biking. I lost weight. I lost 60 pounds. And the way that I lost 60 pounds partly is because I cried every day. I didn't know tears weigh so much. But, I cried every day from June to the day. I couldn't cry in prison and now free with tears--because the question is if you're crying, what are you growing? And, I've decided that I'm growing a new me. I'm growing some freedom, and I'm growing some wings.

But, I'm biking, 7:00 in the morning. I had been biking since 5:00. So, now at, like, mile 20, and I'm biking down Chapel Street in New Haven. And, on my left side, I see this woman out of the corner of my eye and I stop. And, she's sitting on the curb and I'm like, 'You need some help?'

She's older. She says, 'No, I'm good.' She said, 'Well, yeah, help me up.' I get off my bike. I go to help her up. She stumbles back and I said, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to walk you home.' And, she's, 'Nah, yo, man, I'm good.' I said, 'I know, but my mom might be watching. I'm going to walk you home.' I ask her where she's going. She tells me where she's going. She's 77. She says she might've took too much of her medication. She got a dog with her. I walk her up the wrong way because I have no idea where I'm going. I apologize.

I said, 'Listen, sometimes, I am just not the patron saint of pilgrims. I'm the patron saint of misdirection, if ever there was one.' Right? And, I say, 'Yo, I go the other way.' Take 45 minutes to get her home. And, on the walk, she tells me so much about her life. I tell her I went to Yale Law School. She tells me about her sons, how her son is brilliant, doctor. Daughter's a doctor. And then she tells me that she struggled with some mental health stuff. And, I was like, 'Yo, I get it. I've been to prison.' She's like, 'You've been to prison?'

I was, like, 'Yeah.' And then she hugs me. And I walk her home. I see her dog. I said, 'I like dogs. I got a Jack Russell terrier. I love dogs now. I got this whole book I'm writing about dogs and stuff.' She said, 'For real?' She said, 'Man, I make these dog houses that's for dogs. And I put little dogs in it.' And I was, like, 'For real?' She's, like, 'I got to show you.' And, I was, like, 'All right. I would love to see it.' It takes 45 minutes for me to walk her home.

Go up into her house. I'd never been into an old lady's house before. It's like an old lady's house. She got two dogs and the dogs is running around. They do whatever. And they sniffing me. But then she shows me these dog houses, man, it's the little dogs. And, it's like one that has, like, Chihuahuas in it. One that has Labradors in it. And then, there's one that has, like, Jack Russells in it. And, this was the week before my birthday. I said, 'Hey, I'm going to take you to coffee on my birthday. You're my best friend now.' Her name is Judy. She text me. She says, 'I'm 77 years old. This is the best morning of my life.'

I forget to call her on my birthday. I said, 'I got a gift for you, though.' I take her Redaction. And, she had told me about a friend who was a poet. Because, she looked me up. She was like, 'Yeah, you're a really good poet.'

She's, like, 'I got a gift for your birthday gift.' I go to the house, man, and she makes these four dogs and they each got collars on it. And, she puts it on a wooden plaque and the plaque says Dwayne Betts. And, the dog to the far left has a collar on it that says Lawyer. And, the next dog has a collar on it that says Scholar. And, the next one has a collar that says Poet. And then the last collar says Mensch.

I met this woman at 7:00 in the morning while biking and I biked to my son's school just to prove to them that I could bike the entire route that I drive them to school every morning.

Russ Roberts: Well, that's precious, that gift. That's precious.


Russ Roberts: How is the Freedom Reads project going?

Dwayne Betts: I think when we first started--and we talked about it--we had a team of three people. Now, we have a team of roughly 16 people, plus another half a dozen, dozen, contractors that we work with on a regular basis. We have a satellite shop in Louisiana that we worked with. We got a guy named James Washington works there. He went to prison at 15, did 25 years. Freedom Reads was his first job. He's been working with us. On his birthday, he said, 'Can we go back to Angola? I want to make sure we put libraries in the units where I grew up.'

Half our team did time in prison. Steven Parkhurst, his first job when he came home was with us. Now, he's a brilliant guy, brilliant artist. Dude, he trained dogs. He trained, like, the dog for one of the Boston Marathon survivors. You know what I mean? It's 10 years, he worked with this family and worked with this dog. And, I can name names, man. I just got last week, Michael Bird. I didn't even know he went to prison as a juvenile. I half the time don't know who's been in prison on my team or not. But, 17 years. He got on the stage a little while ago and said Freedom Reads was his first job ever.

And, they all make living wage, and they all have healthcare, and they all have 401k plans. I didn't make $60,000 a year until I started Freedom Reads. Like, on a job, I didn't have a 401k plan. I stayed in school the whole time, not because I love education. I mean, I do. I also love health insurance. And also, I just say, man, we went from an idea to having one library to--now we have more than 340 libraries across 10 states and in 40 prisons.

And, I could tell you, man--we went in this women's prison in California, the most beautiful thing ever. I got in an argument with a woman about Shakespearean tragedy. And, somebody was listening to us and said, 'Y'all know each other?' And, I was like, 'No, we just met.' And, she was, like, 'Y'all sound like y'all friends.' I said, 'That's what books do.' And, after that, man, we got a letter from a woman and it just said, 'God bless you, and thanks,' with a check for $35.

Now, when I was in prison, I worked for $0.23 an hour, $0.40 an hour, $0.50 an hour. I know that $35 check was, like, all of her money. And, I think about what Freedom Reads is doing and how well it's doing. And, I think that it is really captured in that.

And, I'm always--like, I don't want to say--the thing that I got to say, which is that we've done 300 libraries, but that is less than 1% of what is necessary to put a Freedom Library on every cell block in every prison in this country.

But you know, in 1997, the year I went to prison, they spent $300 million locking new people up in California.

So, I think about it, and I think that we can bring that kind of joy and possibility and hope, and the tools--like Rawls and Morrison and Primo Levi; I mean, honestly, like Walter Mosley. I was in a prison and this guy said, 'Those books, you brought in those poetry books. Man, it really helped me when I was on my journey to deal with addiction.' I thought to myself, 'What poems is he talking about?' Because we have no poems in there about addiction. I was, like--that's what poetry does, though. You literally find what you're looking for.

And, I will say this: I found a four-leaf clover--two--on different occasions in prisons this year. Somebody said, 'Is it about luck?' I told the warden, 'No, it is not about me looking for luck.' I said, 'Honestly, I just like to prove to myself that you find what you look for.' I spent five hours searching out that four-leaf clover, and when I lifted it up into the air, everybody was, like, 'That boy blessed.' And, I thought, 'Man, I am blessed.'

I should hold on to that. I survived places I shouldn't have survived, and I've done things that I thought was impossible, but I guess--I guess God didn't. So, I am blessed. That's a pretty wild thing to admit, but I am blessed.


Russ Roberts: You've mentioned your mom a few times. You recently wrote a poem for your mom. The title is, "For Some Things There May Be Forgiveness Still." Could you read it?

Dwayne Betts: I--yeah. Definitely.

For Some Things There May Be Forgiveness Still
for my mother

When my mother asks after my heart,
She senses, more than knows, my 
Weeping, & call it coincidence, or
Maybe abandoning our lie: years lost
To prison have always threatened to 
Become a chasm we keep falling 
Into, & she stumbles again watching 
Me occupy space for more days
Than she has since I was a teenager, 
As if I once vanished & never returned,
& now my sons resemble my disappearing. 
What's the name of this thing that's held  
Us together all these years? Even 
As I've struggled to slip these wearying cuffs? 
Maybe it's like crows & how they've turned
Murder into paradox, a way to announce
Never being alone, a wild juxtaposition, 
hundreds of cawing black birds named
After death but testifying to life, 
In wild & raucous flight.

Russ Roberts: It's always a privilege to talk to you, Dwayne. Thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Dwayne Betts: Thank you.