The Equal Justice Initiative is a Montgomery, Alabama-based organization founded in 1989 to provide legal representation for the indigent and incarcerated. Bryan Stevenson, director of the EJI, sent two books last year to Mark Melvin, who is doing life for a murder he committed when he was 14.
One was “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about a doctor’s struggle to bring medical services to Haiti. The other was “Slavery by Another Name.”
“Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” is Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning look into how the American South established a form of de facto slavery in the decades following the Civil War by arresting a large number of black men on ridiculous and unfounded charges and then “selling” them to plantations, turpentine farms, and into other forms of forced and cruel manual labor; even passing laws that made it illegal for black men to change jobs or employers, thus indenturing them into servitude at little pay.
While prison officials allowed Melvin to have the first book, they confiscated and banned the second because, according to Stevenson, they felt it was “too provocative, they didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the idea that the title conveyed. They didn’t read the book, but they were concerned about it and thought that it would be ‘too dangerous’ to have in the prisons.”
Since filing on behalf of Melvin, Stevenson has heard from other prisoners who claim that “years ago, there were a handful of Alabama prisons where the wardens would not let them watch Roots.”
This is yet another account of the disturbing trend of denial in how Americans are dealing with their dark past and the social issues that remain by simply forgetting it ever happened and not allowing any dialogue regarding such “subversive” subjects.
The prison has no issue with Melvin himself; as he isn’t considered a behavior problem. The issue isn’t security, either. So, then, what other reason could there be than to suppress the truth about the South’s record on human rights?
“Other countries that have tried to recover from severe human rights problems have always recognized that you have to commit yourself to truth and reconciliation: South Africa, Rwanda. In the United States we never did that. We had legal reforms that were imposed on some populations against their will and then we just carried on,” says Stevenson.
Take the Holocaust, for example. There are still those who believe the Holocaust never happened and that it was nothing more than political propaganda to garner sympathy for the war effort and the creation of the State of Israel.
Just like a black version of Holocaust denial, Stevenson feels- and I have to agree- that it’s “just a matter of time” before Americans begin to minimize what segregation really was, and is.
What’s truly frightening is that the process has already begun, as many of my weekly reports show in shocking detail. Like former Mississippi Governor, Haley Barbour (R), who claimed in 2010 that desegregation in his state was “a very pleasant experience.”
Hate to burst your bubble of ignorance, Haley, but desegregation in Mississippi was marked by numerous atrocities, the least of which were a firebombing, a fatal riot, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the cold-blooded murders of three voting rights workers; hardly a “pleasant experience” by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, what a slippery slope the practice of revisionist history is.
A PBS documentary also titled Slavery by Another Name was presented at the Sundance Film Festival. Following the film\’s screening the audience gave a 2-minute standing ovation for director Sam Pollard. The film made its PBS debut on February 13th as part of the channel’s Black History Month programming.
As the many public service announcements we see throughout this month proclaim, we should celebrate Black History Month. We should not hide from it. Actually, we should celebrate history and truth in all its forms and all its positives and negatives, not pick and choose that which we want to believe simply because the harsh truth is too shameful or disturbing to bear.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html
Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, Miami Herald, Detroit Free Press, Washington Post
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep ForestProductions