Author: Alabama prison wrong to ban 're-enslavement' book

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On Tuesday, The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a social justice and human rights nonprofit, circulated a press release about an Alabama prison ban on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that examines America’s racial history. The story reached national attention via a full-length article in the New York Times.

EJI founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson was at the center of that story. His client, Mark Melvin, is serving a life sentence at a maximum-security prison just east of Montgomery, Alabama.

Last Friday, Stevenson filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Melvin, a 33-year-old inmate at the Kilby Correctional Facility in Mt. Meigs.

Melvin, charged at age 14 with helping his older brothers commit two murders, claims prison officials and the state commissioner of corrections violated his civil rights by not allowing him to read a book about racial history in the south.

Stevenson mailed the book to Melvin in September 2010 to help the inmate expand his historical knowledge. Stevenson said he was surprised when the book was returned to him in the mail on the grounds that it was a “security threat” and could provoke violence.

“I would think that an inmate trying to engage in a scholarly nonfiction book would be encouraged not condemned,” Stevenson told theGrio.

According to the New York Times, Melvin’s lawsuit alleges that prison officials upheld an order to have the book sent back to Stevenson at his own expense due to a regulation banning all mail that may incite “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.”

Race, inevitably, is a glaring issue in this case. The book at the center of it all, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas Blackmon won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2009. Blackmon, a senior national correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, has written about race in America for two decades.

The book is also the basis of a soon-to-be released national PBS prime-time television documentary.

In vivid detail, the national bestseller chronicles the stories of thousands of African-Americans who were arbitrarily arrested on petty charges and forced to pay their “debts” by laboring in coal mines, railroads, brickyards and farms throughout the American South. According to the book, “convict leasing” — in which workers were “loaned” to other work sites — was essentially a resurrection of slavery after the American Civil War.

It was that history that Melvin was not allowed to read.

“I think we have absolutely not overcome our past and faced the truth of what slavery did,” said Stevenson.

In light of it all, it’s hard not to wonder if America is still haunted by its past.

In an interview with theGrio, author Blackmon provided insights into his research and shared his thoughts on why the book does not deserve to be banned, anywhere.

TheGrio: Do you think growing up in the south forced you to think about race relations in the United States?

Douglas Blackman: I grew up in a town in Mississippi in the height of the civil rights era in the ‘70s. I was in the inaugural class of desegregated schools and so for some reason that did have an impact on me.

What inspired you to write this book?

I think trying to come to an understanding of why things are the way they are; race relations, discrimination and the persistent racial gap in terms of economics and educational performance … these issues have moved me to look further and ask the deeper questions.

While compiling research for this book, what did you find that might have shocked or angered you?

What has been a shock to me and to many people in reality is that slavery was reconstituted after the Civil War. Involuntary servitude came back at the end of the 19th century and large numbers – literally hundreds and thousands of African-Americans were forced back into involuntary servitude. I was astonished at the scale. Hundreds of black men were kidnapped from the back roads in the south and forced to work.

Writing the book, did you have any idea that it would be viewed as “incendiary” or “dangerous”?

I was certain that it was going to stir debate but you never really know if people are going to read what you write. I thought people would find it intellectually stimulating to learn that slavery didn’t really go away until the 20th century. I never imagined that public officials would deem the book as incendiary and go ahead to ban a scholarly work of nonfiction.

Do you foresee the book being banned elsewhere?

I hope not. There is no basis for it to be banned. It was an irrational decision by [the Kilby Correctional Facility]. I got a call from someone else that they couldn’t send the book to someone in a Kentucky state prison. I’m not aware, but there may well be other penal systems that have banned the book.

Do you support the inmate, Mark Melvin’s, decision to file a lawsuit against the prison officials and the state commissioner of corrections?

I support that anyone in America be able to read my book. No one should be able to prevent anyone on the planet from reading the book.

What would you want readers to take away from this book?

It’s really about two things. Number one, things were much worse in the relatively recent past that we thought and secondly, we need to understand how bad it was and effectively and harmoniously move toward a better future and vision for us all. It’s not about making anyone mad or making anyone feel guilty. The book is about racial reconciliation.