Lerone Martin is the Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of Religion and Politics, American Culture Studies, and African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Martin serves on the Prison Education Project (PEP) Executive Board and taught the course “Between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Race, Religion and the Politics of Freedom” at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Fall 2018. However, Professor Martin’s involvement with prison education actually began much earlier as an undergraduate at Anderson University, where he participated in a tutoring program at a juvenile detention center in Pendleton, Indiana. From there, he was involved in a research project as a master’s student studying the Masters in Professional Studies Program at Sing-Sing Correctional Facility in New York, which is run through the New York Theological Seminary (NYTS). The research project that he was involved in tracked the men who were currently in the program and the men who graduated to determine the program’s relationship to reducing recidivism. Professor Martin sat in on classes, conducted focus group interviews with current students, and followed up with graduates of the program. The research project found that those who received a Masters in Professional Studies from NYTS had an extremely low recidivism rate, which is consistent with other studies that show that advanced education is correlated with reduced recidivism. Because of this previous experience, Professor Martin has always been interested in prison education. By the time he got to Washington University, he heard about the Prison Education Project (PEP) through Barbara Baumgartner, the associate director of PEP. Professor Martin recalls thinking, “as soon as I get tenure, I want to be involved in that program.” Sure enough, once he got tenure in January 2017 and returned from research leave, he joined PEP as an instructor and a member of its executive board.
Professor Martin taught the course “Between Malcolm X & Martin Luther King, Jr.: Race, Religion and the Politics of Freedom” at MECC in Fall 2018. He describes the course as a political thought course that tries to get students to see the way that MLK understood racism and freedom in America and compare and contrast his philosophies and ideologies with the way that Malcolm X understood those same things. The course also examines how these two political figures’ religious ideals and faith – MLK’s Christianity and Malcolm X’s Islam – shaped the way they understood topics of race, sexuality, and gender. According to Professor Martin, the course tries to get students to think with these two individuals and explore how MLK’s and Malcolm X’s philosophies can help them understand their current moment. Professor Martin recalled that one of the initial challenges he faced while teaching the course at MECC was clarifying that the class was not intended to be a Christianity versus Islam class, nor was it designed to transmit the faith or convert anyone to a particular religion. He noted that “anytime religion is discussed in prison in United States, it’s often from a confessional standpoint. In contrast, the primary goal of this class was to examine how faith shaped these two very prominent individuals (MLK and Malcolm X).”
Professor Martin describes MLK and Malcolm X as two of history’s most “known unknowns”: “MLK has become a saint in a way that sanitized him, although he had ideas that were challenging; he advocated for the end of Vietnam War, for universal basic income, for equality for African-Americans, and for the rights of people of color. Malcolm X, on the other hand, has the opposite problem in that he has been relegated to someone who is a violent man.” Although traditionally “King is sanitized, while Malcolm X is vilified,” Professor Martin’s course allows students to see a different side of these two individuals. As their final project, Professor Martin asks his students to write an editorial about a pressing current issue: mass incarceration, police brutality, or consumer capitalism, to name a few. The only requirement is students must use wisdom, knowledge, authority, and perspective of MLK or Malcolm X to to help bolster their point. Another thing Professor Martin asks his students at the end of the semester is who they gravitate towards more – MLK or Malcolm X. He notes that there is usually a switch that occurs between the beginning and end of the class; initially more students gravitate towards MLK, and by the end many find they resonate more with Malcolm X. However, African-American students often gravitate more towards MLK after learning more about him as a person and about his more radical ideas.
Professor Martin thoroughly enjoyed his time teaching the course at MECC and hopes to be out there teaching again soon. He views PEP as an integral part of the WashU community and its relationship to WashU as mutually beneficial: “PEP is a such a natural avenue by which we can fulfill the Chancellor’s idea of Washington University not just in St. Louis, but for St. Louis. A good number of folks have ties to the St. Louis community who end up being our students there. PEP offers a way for WashU to not just be in St. Louis, but for St. Louis. That’s what PEP offers WashU. What WashU offers PEP is world-class university resources being taught in a correctional facility. We all know that studies have shown that education reduces recidivism, but how much more when you have an elite education? That takes it even a step further. So many men that I’ve talked to can’t believe they’re working towards a college degree; many can’t believe they’re doing it through WashU. Being in prison is a dehumanizing experience… There’s something about WashU being an elite institution that injects the education PEP students are getting with a level of self-confidence and shifts their self-perception.”
When asked how he would like to see PEP grow and expand over the next 5-10 years, Professor Martin said he “would love for PEP to have more classes, more resources, and a more robust reentry component. It’s beautiful and moving that we have people who are so committed to the program and volunteer without being paid. We look forward to the day when all our volunteers can be compensated for their labor.”