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What I Learned from Susan Burton, a Modern-Day Harriet Tubman

Reading her life story will change the way you view the world.

Activist and author Susan Burton. (Photo: Courtesy of The New Press)

There once lived a woman with deep brown skin and black hair who freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety. She welcomed them to safe homes and offered food, shelter, and help reuniting with family and loved ones. She met them wherever they could be found and organized countless others to provide support and aid in various forms so they would not be recaptured and sent back to captivity. This courageous soul knew well the fear and desperation of each one who came to her, seeing in their eyes all the pain she felt years ago when she had been abused and shackled and finally began her own journey to freedom. Deep in the night she cried out to God begging for strength, and when she woke she began her work all over again, opening doors, planning escape routes, and holding hands with mothers as they wept for children they hoped to see again. A relentless advocate for justice, this woman was a proud abolitionist and freedom fighter. She told the unadorned truth to whomever would listen and spent countless hours training and organizing others, determined to grow the movement. She served not only as a profound inspiration to those who knew her, but as a literal gateway to freedom for hundreds whose lives were changed forever by her heroism.

This essay is adapted from the forward to Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn (The New Press, April 2017) and published with the permission of the author and The New Press.

Some people know this woman by the name Harriet Tubman. I know her as Susan.


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I met Susan Burton in 2010, but I learned her name years before. I was doing some research regarding the challenges of re-entry for people incarcerated due to our nation’s cruel and biased drug war. At the time, I was in the process of writing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessa book that aimed to expose the ways the War on Drugs had not only decimated impoverished communities of color but had also helped to birth a new system of racial and social control eerily reminiscent of an era we supposedly left behind. The United States has become the world leader in imprisonment, having quintupled our prison population in a few short decades through a drug war and “get tough” movement aimed at the poorest and darkest among us. I was writing a chapter that explains how tens of millions of people branded criminals and felons have been stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement, including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. I had mountains of policy analyses and data, but I was disturbed by the fact that few voices of those who actually had been impacted by these modern-day Jim Crow policies could be found in the research.

I scanned dozens of articles online, then paused when I stumbled upon an interview with a woman named Susan Burton. The integrity and authenticity of her voice was undeniable. She told the reporter plainly and directly what it felt like, as a recovering drug addict released from prison and struggling to survive, to be forced to “check the box” on the ubiquitous employment, housing and food stamp applications that asked the dreaded question “have you ever been convicted of a felony?” She knew full well that, once that box was checked, her application would be thrown straight in the trash. How would she survive without food, shelter or a job? She described with clarity and conviction what it meant to be a second-class citizen in the so-called land of the free, and she insisted that she was determined to do everything she could to ensure that the laws, rules, policies and practices that authorize legal discrimination against people with convictions are eventually abandoned, and that we begin to provide drug treatment rather than prison cells to people struggling with addiction and drug abuse. I learned Susan had created several safe homes for formerly incarcerated women and that she was part of a small, but growing movement for the restoration of basic civil and human rights for people who have spent time behind bars. The interview moved me, and I thought I have to meet this woman.

Read the full article at The Nation.

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander is the author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Currently, she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

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