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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

PLS Speaker Michelle Alexander Set Attendance Record

By Betsy Hnath

Old Dominion University welcomed New York Times best-selling author Michelle Alexander Jan. 16 as the first speaker in the Spring 2018 season of the President's Lecture Series. She was also the speaker for the President's task force on Inclusive Excellence and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance speaker.

Alexander attracted an audience of 1,700 -- the largest crowd in the history of the series -- to the event, which was presented as part of the President's Task Force on Inclusive Excellence initiative and was moderated by WHRV's "HearSay" host, Cathy Lewis, who serves as the University's Community Engagement Liaison.

Best known for her 2010 book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar. She has spent much of her career rallying against the United States criminal justice system, particularly her belief that it targets low-income people of color.

Also during the event, University President, John R. Broderick, also presented this year's Dr. Hugo A. Owens/Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award to the Hampton Roads 200+ Men Inc. in recognition of their outstanding leadership and advocacy for social justice.

Dr. Owens, known throughout the Hampton Roads community for his civil rights activism and community leadership, served on the University's Board of Visitors from 1990 to 1994 and was board's first African American rector.

The award honors organizations or people who have demonstrated a genuine concern for their fellow citizens and a commitment to Dr. King's principles of peace and equality.

"Consideration is given to achievements in civil rights, government, housing and social programs," Broderick said. "Recipients must have demonstrated leadership, dedication and persistence over a period of time."

A 20-year-old Hampton Roads organization, 200+ Men Inc. encourages, inspires and enables African-American young people and adults to reach their highest potential.

Its newest initiative, the 200+ Scholars Academy, offers a four-year mentorship program to young African-American teenage males blending classes, discussions and civic events.

During her hour-long lecture, Alexander drew applause and cheers from the crowd.

"No other country in the world has a penal system like ours," she said. "Anyone who has been incarcerated in the U.S. - and that's largely the African-American population -- has permanent, second-class status. They can't find work; they can't vote; and they are trapped in a cycle destined to repeat itself. It's a caste system."

For the first time in the series' history, audience members were able to tweet questions to the host by using the hashtag #ODULIVE.

In her answers, Alexander addressed additional topics including how the legalization of marijuana might impact prison populations.

"Even though studies have shown that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, they have been overwhelmingly the target of the drug war," Alexander said. "I think the investment of more than a trillion dollars in the drug war as opposed to education or job creation in poor communities has been nothing less than disastrous."

Alexander, currently a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, added that, in her view, decriminalizing certain drugs by itself won't end mass incarceration.

"If we're going to end mass incarceration, we're going to have to do more than simply legalizing marijuana," she said. "We are going to have to rethink, re-imagine our justice system entirely."

Following her lecture, Alexander spent time signing her books, for sale at the event, and speaking to audience members. She sold more copies of her work than any speaker in the series history.

The President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring fascinating personalities who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

Alexander's books are currently available for sale at the Village Bookstore on Monarch Way.

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