May 2017

Monday, May 1st – 7:00-9:00pm

PRINCE AMONG SLAVES: Film Screening and Audience Talkback

2017 Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival

Audience Talkback re: The Connection Between Slavery and Islam by Reggie Jackson, ABHM Head Griot

UWM Cinema, Union 2nd Floor

2200 E. Kenwood Boulevard

Milwaukee WI 53211

Free and open to the public


Monday, May 15th – 6:30-8:15pm

The Hidden Impact of Segregation in Milwaukee County

Lecture/Q & A as part of a Panel, by Reggie Jackson, ABHM Head Griot



Sponsored by the Black Student Union

Wauwatosa West High School

11400 W Center St, Milwaukee, WI 53222

Free and open to the public

About Reggie Jackson

Reggie Jackson speaking at ABHM’s Founder’s Day Gathering for Racial Repair and Reconciliation in February 2017. Photo: Pat A. Robinson

Reggie Jackson first volunteered with America’s Black Holocaust Museum in 2002. A year later, he was appointed Head Griot (pronounced GREE-oh) and began training the new griots. By the time the bricks-and-mortar museum closed in June 2008, he had led hundreds of tours.

Reggie became a close friend and protegé of ABHM founder, Dr. James Cameron. Since Cameron’s death in 2006, Reggie has served as an expert on the life of this unsung civil rights hero and lynching survivor. He authored the Afterword of Dr. Cameron’s memoir, A Time of Terror: A Survivors Story, 3rd edition.

After the building closed, Reggie joined a task force of community activists determined to keep Dr. Cameron’s museum and legacy alive. They formed the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation and in 2012 began to operate America’s Black Holocaust Museum as a “museum without walls.”

Reggie served as the Cameron Legacy Foundation’s first board president until January 2017 and helped establish not only the online museum but also the popular Griots To Go Speakers Bureau.

In his role as ABHM’s Head Griot, Reggie has been a much sought-after speaker on Black Holocaust topics regionally and nationally for over a decade. He presents the untold and seldom-told stories in African-American history at schools, libraries, churches, and businesses – and conducts diversity and race relations training.

Mr. Jackson has also taught Contemporary Social Problems and Introduction to Sociology as an adjunct professor at Concordia University and worked as a special education teacher in Milwaukee middle schools.

He is the 2015 winner of the Eliminating Racism Award from southeast Wisconsin’s YWCA and the 2016 Courageous Love Award from the First Unitarian Society.


The rescue of Joshua Glover as depicted in a mural by Ammar Nsoroma in Milwaukee WI.

Wednesday, May 17th – 6:00-7:30pm

The Struggles of Joshua Glover

Lecture/Q & A by Reggie Jackson, ABHM Head Griot

Racine Public Library

75 Seventh Street

Racine, WI 53403


Free and open to the public



Thursday, May 25th – 6:30-8:00pm

The Impact of Segregation on the Health and Healthcare of African Americans in Milwaukee

Lecture/Q & A by Reggie Jackson, ABHM Head Griot

Milwaukee Area Health Education Center (MAHEC)

Not open to the public


Events in June 2017 here.


ABHM Co-Sponsors “Racial Justice: The Courage to Act” with Head Griot Reggie Jackson Speaking on Segregation in Milwaukee

Written by: Keith McAllister

Edited by: Zak Morse

Full house!



April 1st fell on a Saturday this year, and community members from more than 20 different churches and organizations around Milwaukee gathered at Alverno College to engage in the impactful social justice event, Racial Justice: The Courage to Act. The event left attendees with much to think about in the struggle for justice. It also illustrated efforts to build coalitions across organizations committed to racial justice in Milwaukee, including the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, Rid Racism Milwaukee, and Unitarian Universalists (UUs) for Black Lives Matter.

For a full list of co-sponsors, visit the event page; for insights about the day’s program, check out the hashtag #Courage2Act on Twitter and Instagram.

Among the co-sponsors was
America’s Black Holocaust Museum. ABHM’s Head Griot Reggie Jackson delivered the opening address, which described the impact of  racism in Milwaukee and the struggle for justice in Milwaukee’s past and present. Jackson’s address set the tone early on for serious engagement by addressing directly the scope and severity of the city’s racial injustices.

Reggie Jackson speaking on segregation in Milwaukee.

Jackson described how Milwaukee is the most racially segregated major city in the U.S. “Milwaukee’s issues are literally killing black people.” Wisconsin is the “only state in the U.S.” where the life expectancy gap is not improving, and two thirds of the distressed population in the state is concentrated here in Milwaukee. Facts like these—and many more shown in the speaker’s presentation—are indicative of wider social and economic disparities.

The conference left us with the resoundingly clear message: more action is needed for racial justice. In light of events like Racial Justice: Courage to Act, there is a need for community members to ask hard questions, articulate lived experiences, and help reconcile historical injustices to promote justice in today’s Milwaukee.

For more about the organizations involved, explore the event’s Facebook page.

To learn more about America’s Black Holocaust Museum, please explore the virtual museum galleries.

Read more Breaking News here.


April 2017

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers wears an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt in recognition of the unarmed black men and women, like Eric Garner, who have died at the hands of police.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Wednesday, April 5th – 6:30-8:00pm

Has There Been a Black Holocaust in America?

Lecture/Q & A by Dr. Fran Kaplan, Coordinator, ABHM’s Virtual Museum

Shorewood Public Library & Senior Resource Center

3920 N Murray Ave, Shorewood, WI 53211

 Free and open to the public


Fran addresses the question: Is it accurate and fair to describe the experiences of Africa’s children in America as a holocaust?

She engages the audience in an exploration of the definitions of the term holocaust and the common features of modern holocausts. Fran shares the history of the term’s usage and an overview of the central experiences of African Americans as a group since the arrival of their ancestors to North America as enslaved people in the early 1600s.

Fran Kaplan

About Dr. Fran Kaplan

Fran has worked actively against poverty and for social justice, diversity, equity, and peace for almost fifty years, most of these in Milwaukee.

Her professional practice as a social worker, community organizer, and adult educator has taken her into the seemingly diverse fields of farmworker rights, women’s healthcare and reproductive rights, child protection and parenting education. Fran is also a published author and filmmaker.

During the last six years Fran has worked full time with the community group that runs the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation and its programs, including America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

She has been particularly involved in developing the online museum and its offline public education and interracial dialogues. Dr. Kaplan also helped launch the Foundation’s imprint, LifeWrites Press, and issue a recently expanded edition of Dr. Cameron’s memoir, A Time of Terror, among other publications. In December 2016 she was given the SE Wisconsin YWCA’s Eliminating Racism Award.

Fran raised her three biological and foster children in the great Milwaukee neighborhoods of Riverwest and Sherman Park, where she still resides. She is thrilled to be a bubbe (grandma).


The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has a long history of working for the freedom of African Americans.

Sunday, April 23rd – 12:00-1:30pm

The Hidden History & Impacts of Segregation in Milwaukee County

Lecture/Q & A by Reggie Jackson, ABHM Head Griot

Milwaukee Friends (Quakers) Meeting

Milwaukee WI

Reggie discusses segregation in Greater Milwaukee with particular attention to its impacts on the Riverwest neighborhood where the Friends Meeting House is located and the next neighborhood to the north, Harambee, which have different makeups and histories.

Not open to the public



Saturday, April 29th

How to Engage Students to Become Socially Conscious

Workshop by Reggie Jackson, ABHM Head Griot

Educators’ Network for Social Justice

10th Annual Teaching Conference

Milwaukee WI

Not open to the public

Join Us on February 25, 2017 for ABHM’s Founder’s Day Gathering!


 America can heal from its troubled racial history.

Join us to learn how.

The Gathering for Racial Repair and Reconciliation

Our annual Gathering celebrates the legacy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum founder, Dr. James Cameron. In his honor, we bring together people from all corners of Greater Milwaukee for learning, dialogue and fellowship.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Centennial Hall • 733 N. 8th Street • Milwaukee WI


This year’s topic:

Let’s Face It: How Communities Remember and Repair Racial Trauma

We’ll explore these questions:





9:00 -11:30 am Open to General Public & Sponsors. Tickets on sale here.


Introduction: Let’s Face It!

Listen to a short talk by ABHM Head Griot Reggie Jackson about the importance of truth-telling, remembrance, and ABHM’s role as a memorial museum in healing our city and nation.





Sneak Preview of a New Film, Always in Season

Experience a premiere preview of a new film that documents how lynching still impacts Americans to this day. It shows how descendants of victims and perpetrators in four communities are working to acknowledge the victims, repair the damage, and reconcile. View the film trailer here and the film website here.

Audience Talkback with Film Director and National Community Experts

Interact with film director Jacqueline Olive.  Jackie creates documentary projects that tell stories underrepresented in mainstream media. She coordinated the production of the Emmy award-winning PBS series, Independent Lens, and the internationally-themed documentary series, Global Voices. She will be joined on stage by members of the communities represented in Always in Season. Additional experts from around the country and Greater Milwaukee will also introduce their restorative projects. All presenters will then take questions and comments from the audience. (See the list of additional national and local presenters below.)



In addition, there will be:



12:15 – 4:15 pm – Open to Event Sponsors and their guests only.

(Organizations and individuals wishing to become Sponsors, please click here

for Sponsorship Opportunities, Benefits, and Response Form.)

Luncheon Keynote Address: Why Commemorate?

Listen to public historian Doria D. Johnson address the impact of remembering of racial trauma on victims and the ethics of doing such memory work.  An expert in US and African American history, Doria’s great-great-grandfather Anthony Crawford was lynched in 1916.  In 2005 she successfully pressed the US Senate to apologize for failure to enact federal laws against lynching. A memorial to her grandfather was recently dedicated in the town where he was murdered.


Roundtables (Small Group Dialoguing and Networking)

Attend two different roundtable discussions of your choice during the afternoon. This is a chance to talk in depth with two of the expert presenters and to network with other attendees who share your interest in particular topics.

(Preview the presenter/topic list below.)



Action Plans and Closing Ceremony

We’ll gather as a full group to reflect on:


Our Roundtable Facilitators

Henry Banks (Duluth MN) – Mr. Banks co-founded the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Project in Duluth, MN, the downtown memorial plaza built by this small city built to commemorate the infamous lynching of three circus workers. Henry is also the host of the regular weekly People of Color talk show on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Karen Branan (Washington DC) – Ms. Branan is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated memoir The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth. Karen has long been active in Coming To The Table, a national organization that pairs descendants of lynching perpetrators and victims, as well as slaveholders and enslaved people, for the purpose of repair and reconciliation.


Randy Gamble (Memphis TN) – An anti-racism activist for many years, Mr. Gamble is a leader of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis. LSP is part of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize over 4,000 known lynchings in our country between 1877 and 1950 through local community remembrance projects and a new national lynching memorial. The Memphis lynching of three black men launched Ida B. Wells on her anti-lynching campaign; Randy and the Downtown Clergy Association are organizing a 125th anniversary commemoration of those victims.

Cassandra Greene (Atlanta GA) – Ms. Greene is Director of the Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching re-enactment, which has, for the last seven years, commemorated the victims of that lynching in a small town in Georgia. That re-enactment is featured in the film Always in Season and can be seen in its trailer. Cassandra is also founder/CEO of the W.I.T.N.E.S.S. PROGRAM/ W.O.W.W. where she teaches communications and serves as a minister in Georgia’s State and Federal prisons.


Pardeep Singh Kaleka (Franklin WI) – A former Milwaukee cop, after his father was killed by a white supremacist in the Sikh Temple massacre, Mr. Kaleka paired up with a former violent white power extremist to found Serve2Unite, which teaches schoolchildren peacemaking through the Sikh principles of Chardi Kala: fearless creative compassion, service to others, and relentless optimism in the face of adversity. Pardeep is also a psychotherapist at the D & L Healing Center, where he specializes in treating trauma.

Brad Lichtenstein (Milwaukee WI) – An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Mr. Lichtenstein is developing a feature film that digs into unsolved Klan murders of black men in Mississippi. Despite the 2007 Emmett Till Act giving the FBI $100 million to investigate these crimes, their families have no answers. The murderers walk free. The film explores whether and how the trauma of unresolved violence can be healed.


Erin McCarthy and Colleen Perry (Greendale WI) – Middle school teachers in a white suburb of Milwaukee, Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Perry persuaded their principal and students’ parents of the value of regularly teaching African American history as a part of – not a sidebar to – American history. Erin and Colleen present history as a complex story of complex people in America’s complex society and teach it by building empathy, defining race and developing the whole child.  Through their inquiry-based curriculum, they build responsible citizens and communities.

Warren Read (Seattle WA) – Author of the memoir, The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History, Mr. Read offered public apologies to each of the families of the three circus workers lynched in Duluth on the occasion of the dedication of the memorial to them there. Warren is also an elementary school teacher and educational leader/administrator.


Maria Cunningham and Jordan Davis (Milwaukee WI) – Active volunteers with the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation, Maria serves as the Foundation board’s Vice-President and Jordan as a Public Programming Administrative Assistant. Milwaukee Public Library’s Rare Books Librarian, Ms. Cunningham led the project to digitize the dozens of booklets on African American history and race relations by Dr. Cameron, and created and manages a traveling exhibit about his life and writings for the museum. Mr. Davis is a Distinguished Graduate Student Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding program. His research interests center on public and local history, heritage resource management, and the museology of Africa and the African Diaspora.



(as of 1/4/16)


This event is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

































Dr. Russell Brooker

Bev Colton

Marquette University’s





Dr. Cameron’s Memoir To Be Presented at SE Wisconsin Festival of Books 11/4/16

tot-cover-wippy-seal“Have you ever watched one man die and then another, knowing that your turn was next? Have you ever looked into ten thousand angry faces whose open mouths screamed for your blood? Have you ever felt yourself in the hands of such a mob whose sole purpose was to destroy you?

All of these things and more happened to me several years ago. This I acknowledge not boastfully but humbly, for the fact that I am alive to tell this story is due to a power greater than myself or any man.

It is an established fact that people learn a great deal quickly when caught in traumatic events. The things I believed I learned, as well as the unforgettable events themselves, are the reasons why this book has been written.”

Thus begins the extraordinary memoir, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story, written by the only person ever to survive a lynching. Just as Anne Frank’s Diary reveals the intimate personal experiences of a teenager trying to make sense of Nazi terror, James Cameron’s book shares his journey growing up during the Jim Crow era, living through its worst forms of racial violence, and retaining his faith in the promise of America.

Fran Kaplan (L) and Reggie Jackson (R) accepting the Silver IPPY medals on May 10, 2016, in Chicago. They are two of four authors who contributed the additional materials included in A Time of Terror's 3rd edition.

Fran Kaplan (L) and Reggie Jackson (R) accepting the Silver IPPY medals on May 10, 2016, in Chicago. They are two of four authors who contributed the additional materials included in A Time of Terror’s 3rd edition.

This uplifting story of a life courageously and well lived has been re-released in a greatly expanded 3rd edition by LifeWrites Press, the publishing imprint of the nonprofit Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation. Proceeds from the book’s sales support the Foundation and its educational programs, including America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Authors who contributed to the award-winning new edition – Dr. Robert S. Smith, Reggie Jackson, and Dr. Fran Kaplan – will talk about the book and the life and legacy of its late author, a civil rights pioneer and the founder of ABHM.

PLACE: Southeastern Wisconsin Festival of Books – University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, Room N125

DATE/TIME: Saturday, November 5, 2016, from 4:00-5:00pm. Book signing and sale follows the talk in the same room from 5:00-5:30pm.

The panel presentation, also featuring author and photographer, Mark Speltz, and civil rights activist and poet, Margaret Rozga, is called Up North: Images and Incidents in the African American Freedom Struggle.

Read excerpts from A Time of Terror here. Purchase the book online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, as well as at independent booksellers like Milwaukee’s Boswell Books.





Time of Terror Book Talks & Exhibits in June 2016

Want to learn more about ABHM’s award winning book, see its newest traveling exhibit, hear talks by its griots?

There are several great opportunities in Milwaukee this month!

You aren’t in Milwaukee, but would like to have a speaker come to your group? Click here for a Griot To Go!


Rotunda, City Hall

200 E Wells St, Milwaukee, WI 53202

8:00am to 5:00pm weekdays

Fran Kaplan (L) and Reggie Jackson (R) accepting the Silver IPPY medals on May 10, 2016, in Chicago. They are two of four authors who contributed the additional materials included in A Time of Terror's 3rd edition.

Fran Kaplan (L) and Reggie Jackson (R) accepting the Silver IPPY medals on May 10, 2016, in Chicago. They are two of four authors who contributed the additional materials included in A Time of Terror’s 3rd edition.

– EXHIBIT: The Life and Writings of Dr. James Cameron, an America’s Black Holocaust Museum’s traveling exhibit, will be on display for the public weekdays from June 13-23.

– BOOK TALK / SALE / SIGNING: June 16 – 2:00pm

In conjunction with the exhibit at City Hall, ABHM Head Griot and Time of Terror contributing author Reggie Jackson will speak about the book in the Rotunda. The book will be available for sale and author signing following the talk until 4:00pm.

Sponsored by the Milwaukee Public Library.


Mobile Design Box (UWM – School of Architecture and Urban Planning)

1551 North Water  (Water and East Pleasant Streets)

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

– EXHIBIT: The VIRTUAL Museum and Writings of Dr. James Cameron, an ABHM traveling exhibit, will be on display for the public daily from June 25-30.

– PRESENTATION / DEMONSTRATION: June 25 – 6:00-8:00pm 

In conjunction with the above exhibit at the Mobile Design Box,  A Time of Terror contributing authors Dr. Fran Kaplan, Dr. Robert Smith, and Reggie  Jackson will demonstrate and talk about America’s Black Holocaust virtual (entirely online) Museum and answer the questions:

– BOOK SALE / SIGNING – A Time of Terror will be available for purchase at the event and the contributors will sign books from 7:30-8:00pm.

The exhibit, talk, and book sale/signing are open and free to the public. For more information, visit or

These events are part of the Mobility Matters exhibition, which highlights a series of projects, collaborative practices, and community issues that are transforming the social fabric of the Midwest.


7:00 pm

Boswell Book Company

2559 N. Downer Ave.

Milwaukee, WI 53211


Dr. James Cameron, lynching survivor, civil rights activist, and founder of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Fran Kaplan and Robert Samuel Smith, editors and coauthors of the Introduction to James Cameron’s A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story, 3rd edition, will present a reading and audio-visual talk: The Life, Times and Accomplishments of Dr. James Cameron, a Milwaukee hero and early civil rights pioneer.

Dr. Fran Kaplan serves as coordinator of the virtual America’s Black Holocaust Museum. She has been an educator, social worker, writer, and racial justice activist for nearly five decades. Fran has created and run nonprofit and for profit organizations that address issues from women’s health and farmworker rights to nurturing parenting, early childhood education, and peace-building.

Dr. Robert Samuel Smith is Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Inclusion & Engagement, the Director of the Cultures & Communities Program, and Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He teaches courses on African American History, Multicultural America, African Americans and the Law, and U.S. Legal History. He is author of the book Race, Labor and Civil Rights, and contributes a monthly column to Milwaukee Magazine.

Drs. Kaplan and Smith will be joined in the book signing by the late Dr. Cameron’s son, Virgil, and his protégé and book contributor, Reggie Jackson. The event is cosponsored by America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Lynching Survivor’s Memoir Wins Prestigious Book Award

For Immediate Release
For more information, contact
Tammy Belton-Davis at (414) 339-7604

ToT front w back excerptMILWAUKEE (May 25, 2016) – Dr. James Cameron’s memoir A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story recently received the 20th Annual 2016 Independent Publisher Book Award. “IPPY” Awards are presented to the year’s best titles in the important and growing arena of independent publishing. A Time of Terror garnered the Silver Medal for the Great Lakes – Best Regional Non-Fiction during an awards ceremony held May 10th in Chicago.

A Time of Terror is the only lynching account ever written by a survivor. The photograph of this horrific spectacle, in which two other boys died, is the most well-recognized of such images in the world. It inspired the song “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holiday. Only sixteen when the 1930 lynching took place, Cameron wrote his memoir at the age of twenty-one. It was published almost fifty years later and became an instant media sensation.

Baby Jimmie Cameron in his mother Vera's arms, surrounded by female relatives in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 1914.

Baby Jimmie Cameron in his mother Vera’s arms, surrounded by female relatives in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 1914.

This expanded third edition includes never-before-published chapters and fifty vintage photographs. It also contains over 100 annotations that provide definitions of the era’s expressions and background on historical characters and events. A Foreword by bestselling author James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) explains how Cameron’s story sheds light on current race relations in America. An Introduction by historian Robert Smith and educator Fran Kaplan helps the reader grasp the social and cultural environment in which young Cameron grew up. The Afterword by ABHM Head Griot Reggie Jackson describes Cameron’s adult life — after his memoir ends — as a civil rights pioneer and public historian.

“Cameron’s memoir is an inspired meditation on individual human endeavor, comparable to the trials and tribulations of Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, but with an uplifting ending,” writes one reviewer, Dr. Stephen Small, professor of African-American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley.

lifewrites-press-logoThe book is available for purchase through and for $24.99. A schedule of book talks and signings, as well as downloadable book excerpts, can be found at The book was published by LifeWrites Press, the publishing arm of the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation, which also operates America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Fran Kaplan (L) and Reggie Jackson (R) accepting the Silver IPPY medals on May 10, 2016, in Chicago. They are two of four authors who contributed the additional materials included in A Time of Terror's 3rd edition.

Fran Kaplan (L) and Reggie Jackson (R) accepting the Silver IPPY medals on May 10, 2016, in Chicago. They are two of four authors who contributed the additional materials included in A Time of Terror’s 3rd edition.

“We are so honored to receive this prestigious award honoring Dr. Cameron and his story,” said Reggie Jackson, Head Griot (docent) of America’s Black Holocaust Museum. “Despite the terrible trauma he suffered in his youth, Dr. Cameron never lost his hope and faith in America and its ideals. His accomplishments as a civil rights pioneer, working man, self-taught historian, writer, father of five, and founder of America’s Black Holocaust Museum are nothing short of phenomenal.”

The “IPPY” Awards, launched in 1996, bring  recognition to the deserving but often unsung titles published by independent authors and publishers around the world.

ABHM featured on Milwaukee Public Television

It’s not every museum you can visit from the comfort of your own home!

In this week’s Black Nouveau program, MPTV producers highlighted ABHM’s 21st century form of armchair travel and education.

This week’s program Trippin’ included a virtual visit to ABHM and describes the rich historical and contemporary resources to be found on the site. Trippin’ also feature three other Wisconsin-based museums that offer important exhibitions about local and national African American history:

Here is Trippin’ in its entirety. The segment on ABHM begins at minute 19:45.

“Black Nouveau” is an award-winning program that is regarded as one of the most accurate and positive perspectives of African American life in Milwaukee. It offers messages that promote positive images, interviews and profiles of African-American movers and shakers.

War on Drugs – or War on Blacks?

Griot: Reggie Jackson

President Ronald Reagan talks about his drug policies in a March 1987 press conference.

President Ronald Reagan talks about his drug policies in a March 1987 press conference.

“The mood toward drugs is changing in this country, and the momentum is with us. We’re making no excuses for drugs — hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.”  – President Ronald Reagan, October 2, 1982

With these words America’s modern War on Drugs was launched. This war would have many casualties. The war would lead the United States down the path to incarcerate over two million people. State budgets would expand to pay the costs of hundreds of new prisons. The black and Latino communities would lose countless young men to incarceration. By 2015, the Federal government will spend over $25 billion annually to combat drugs.

Tulia, Texas: Watch this film about one small town’s experience with the War on Drugs.

The "War on Drugs" begun by President Reagan in the 1980s resulted in a sudden steep rise in the number of Americans being jailed. The US now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

The “War on Drugs” begun by President Reagan in the 1980s resulted in a sudden steep rise in the number of Americans being jailed. The US now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.


The irony of the War on Drugs being launched in the 1980s is that illicit drug use had been dropping for about a decade. We were essentially beginning to fight a war with an enemy that no one believed existed. In fact, less than 2 percent of the public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. Prior to this time the federal government played only a small role in crime control. Reagan’s Attorney General, William French Smith recommended a policy shift to deploy a “strong federal law enforcement capacity” in what he called a “highly popular” manner.

This shift led Reagan to fulfill one of his campaign promises, to get tough on crime. He used coded racial language to convince whites to believe that a “human predator” existed. This predator would primarily be young black males. In 1970 Sidney Wilhelm wrote a book titled, Who Needs the Negro? He argued that black labor was no longer necessary to the American economy due to automation and de-industrialization. Blacks would become the enemy in the War on Drugs.

LA prisoners NewOrleansTimesPicayune

Prisoners in a Louisiana jail

The Reagan Administration and Congress authorized $125 million to establish regional drug task forces employing over 1,000 FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agents along with new federal prosecutors. The FBI drug enforcement budget skyrocketed from $8 million in 1980 to over $95 million four years later. From 1981 until 1991 the DEA antidrug budget increased from $86 million to over a billion dollars. Alongside these increases federal allocations for education and treatment of drug abuse was decimated. The National Institute on Drug Abuse saw its funding slashed from $274 million in 1981 to only $57 million by 1984.

Time cocaine coverThis new emphasis on criminal prosecution of the Drug War led to a huge increase in state and local law enforcement and prosecution. The enforcement of new, more harsh drug laws would be concentrated in poor black communities. These communities were already suffering tremendously due to the major recession of the early 1980’s. Family supporting wages from manufacturing jobs, which drove many blacks into northern communities beginning in the 1950’s, were being shifted overseas. Jobs were difficult to find and in some cases impossible to find. The jobs that were created during this time were mostly in the suburbs, and inaccessible to inner city residents.

An illicit drug market became the replacement labor force. Crack cocaine, became the tool by which this market expanded. In 1984 the Los Angeles Times first reported on the use of cocaine “rocks” in black and Latino neighborhoods. Crack was simply a mixture of powdered cocaine, water and baking soda that was “cooked” to produce smokable “rocks.” By 1986 this new form of cocaine was only found in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and a handful of other big cities.

Len Bias funeralTwo professional athletes, Len Bias of the Boston Celtics and Don Rogers of the Cleveland Browns died in June 1986 of what was referred to by the media as “crack related” incidents that were in reality powdered cocaine overdoses. News coverage increased overnight of police raiding “crack houses” and escorting black and Latino males away in handcuffs. In July 1986 the three major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) showed seventy-four evening news segments on drugs, including over thirty stories on crack. Newspapers around the country produced about one thousand stories about crack leading up to the mid-term congressional elections in November 1986.

By mid 1986 Newsweek called crack the biggest story since Vietnam and Watergate. Time magazine called it the issue of the year. The “crack epidemic” or “crack plague” became the most common terms to describe the drug. The intense media coverage of crack led the DEA to issue a press release to correct the misperception of crack. They stated, “crack is currently the subject of considerable media attention…The result has been a distortion of the public perception of the extent of crack use as compared to the use of other drugs…it appears to be a secondary rather than primary problem in most areas.”

Time cover crack kidsOne of the most incendiary stories related to crack was the so-called “crack babies.” These were babies born to drug using mothers. The hysteria surrounding this phenomenon led to laws being passed to prosecute mothers who tested positive for cocaine. Crack and powdered cocaine are indistinguishable. Therefore there is no way to tell if the mother had used crack or powdered cocaine. Despite the fact that no data was available on supposedly “crack-addicted babies”, the media ran hundreds of stories warning that these children would become menaces to society. Only later did studies prove this to be untrue. The media barely covered this new information.

The intense media scrutiny led Congress to pass the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The bill introduced mandatory minimum sentences including a 5-year term for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, while mandating the same sentence for 500 grams of powdered cocaine, a 100:1 ratio. The crack scare died down after the election.

By 1988, crack became an issue again during the election cycle. ABC News reported that crack was a “plague…eating away at the fabric of America.” The rhetoric about crack continued, and led Congress to pass the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which enhanced drug penalties and led to the Comprehensive Community Substance Abuse Prevention Act of 1989. These Congressional acts led to huge increases in law enforcement budgets. As a result the prison population began to soar. In 1980 there were only 14,100 people in prison or jail for drug offenses. Today there are over a half-million, in increase of 1,100 percent.

Incarceration_rates_worldwideThe impact of the drug scare would continue during the Clinton administration with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the largest crime bill in U.S. history. It placed an additional 100,000 new police officers on the street and provided nearly $10 billion funding for prisons. It also eliminated Pell grants for incarcerated prisoners to receive post secondary education, which had been available since 1965.

The increased funding, extra police officers and prosecutors led to the largest growth in prisoners in world history. The incarcerated population in the United States grew from a little over 500,000 in 1980 (319,598 in prison, 182,288 in jail) to over 2.3 million by 2013. The War on Drugs led to the imposition of crime policies which would put America in the position of having only 5% of the world’s population and over 25% of the people incarcerated.


The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Reggie Jackson is Head Griot of America’s Black Holocaust Museum and President of the Board of the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation, ABHM’s parent organization. Reggie is a frequent public speaker on topics relating to African American history and the black holocaust. He works as a teacher with the Milwaukee Public Schools.

This exhibit was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Any views, finding, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the national Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.