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by J. Smith

A white prison inmate in Alabama, who has been serving a life sentence, is suing prison officials and the state commissioner of corrections in federal court, claiming they have unjustly kept him from reading a book.

Mark Melvin, The New York Times reports, was entering his 18th year in jail and had been reading novels and biographies, studies of World War II and Irish history. His lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, sent Melvin the book “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by Douglas A. Blackmon, the senior national correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. The prison would not allow Melvin to have the Pulitzer Prize winning book, because officials deemed it “a security threat.”

“The book chronicles the vast and brutal convict leasing system, which became nearly indistinguishable from antebellum slavery as it grew. In this system, people, in almost all cases black, were arrested by local law enforcement, often on the flimsiest of charges, and forced to labor on the cotton farms of wealthy planters or in the coal mines of giant corporations
to pay off their criminal penalties,” the Times reports. “Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he was told by an official at Kilby [Correctional Facility] that the book was ‘too incendiary’ and ‘too provocative,’ and was ordered to have it sent back at his own expense.”

Melvin did not request pornographic materials, hateful literature or even an NWA cassette tape; the man asked for a Pulitzer Prize winning history book that chronicles a factual account of the past. Blocking access to such information is consistent with the usual tactics of the oppressor, just a mutation of the longstanding fear that knowledge really does equal
power. This cowardice and obvious insecurity on display in the Alabama prison system offers a poignant snapshot into the psyche of white and powerful America, one that essentially demands the those who had been wronged by their forefathers should just get over it already. Yes, America has a tremendously shameful past (and present), but overt efforts to erase or suppress its history just don’t seem worth the trouble.

“Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he considered the lawsuit to be less about the rights of people in prison but primarily about the country’s refusal to own up to its racial history,” the Times reports. “Stanley Washington, a former inmate who is now a caseworker for the equal justice group, said that at the Alabama
prison where he was serving a sentence in 2001, inmates were forbidden to watch the mini-series ‘Roots.’”

Hopefully national media attention will force the prison’s hand in letting Mr. Melvin read the book, but if the case inspires someone else to open up the pages learn more about black and U.S. history, then we may still consider it a win.

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