Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery speaks out on sentencing of Atlanta teachers found guilty of racketeering

Joseph Lowery

The Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery issued the following statement regarding the sentencing of the Atlanta school teachers found guilty of racketeering earlier this month:

“A Pound of Flesh”
By Rev. Joseph E. Lowery

In Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” a prosecutorial team demanded a pound of flesh from a man who owed a debt he seemed unable to pay. But, before they could secure the ‘pound of flesh’, a lawyer named Portia came forward and in beautiful and eloquent words, proclaimed,

“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

My heart is broken at this sad state of affairs. I beg Judge Baxter, as I did in conversation with District Attorney Howard, to listen to Attorney Portia and set aside “the pound of flesh.”

The teachers’ behavior was unacceptable without a doubt. But, “racketeering” had no business in this equation. When we think of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, we think of gangsters, mobsters, gamblers, and hard-core criminals. We do not think of teachers. We do not think of the Atlanta Public School system. And we shouldn’t. Teachers and the APS are and have always been the bedrock of our community. They are our mothers and fathers, our wives and husbands, our caretakers and providers. We let them down. We are all at fault.

In the name of mercy I urge the judge to require all the educators as part of their probation to teach, mentor and serve the children who have been wounded by this debacle toward recovery and healing. All of us must share some of the blame.

On this fateful day of sentencing, eight people were condemned to a total of 33 years in prison, 57 years probation, 12,000 hours of community service and almost $100,000 in fines. These numbers are ridiculous. What statement have we made? What point have we proved?

Each and every one of us is a victim of a crime much greater than any of us can fathom. It is a crime buried deep in the legacy of our struggle, borne on the backs of those brought here in chains that today still shackle too many of us entrusted to do far better than what we have done. We choose not to remember that legacy, and instead be blinded by our own ambitions and self-righteous causes. This prosecution and condemnation may not have been of racial motivation, but the greatest victim in this process is most assuredly the Black community. Never before have I known such a punishment. In my near century on this earth, I have seen far worse crimes given far less punishment. I only hope that we understand that it is not just those who were sentenced today who must consider the consequences of their actions. We are all at fault. We should all share the blame. Each of us must take some responsibility.

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