[Marxism] White prisoner in Alabama sues to win right to read anti-racist history

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 28 09:48:41 MDT 2011

NY Times September 26, 2011
Alabama Inmate Sues to Read Southern History Book

The past is never dead, though at the Kilby Correctional Facility 
outside of Montgomery, Ala., it seems it is not particularly welcome.

Last Friday, Mark Melvin, who is serving a life sentence at Kilby, 
filed suit in federal court against the prison’s officials and the 
state commissioner of corrections, claiming they have unjustly 
kept a book out of his hands.

The book, which was sent to him by his lawyer, is a work of 
history. More specifically, it is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of 
Southern history, an investigation of the systematically heinous 
treatment of black prisoners in the late 19th and early 20th 
centuries. Mr. Melvin, 33, alleges in his suit that prison 
officials deemed it “a security threat.”

The dispute began a year ago. Mr. Melvin was entering his 18th 
year in the state’s custody, having been charged at 14 with 
helping his older brother commit two murders. He was well-behaved 
enough to be granted parole in 2008, but after committing what his 
lawyer called “a technical violation” at a transition house, he 
was sent back.

So he has been reading novels and biographies, studies of World 
War II and Irish history, his lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, said. After 
his return to prison, Mr. Melvin was assigned by the warden to 
work in the prison’s law library.

Last September, Mr. Stevenson sent Mr. Melvin a couple of books, 
including “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. It won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2009.

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 corporations to pay off their 
criminal penalties. Though convict leasing occurred across the 
South, the book focuses on Alabama.

Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he 
was told by an official at Kilby that the book was “too 
incendiary” and “too provocative,” and was ordered to have it sent 
back at his own expense.

He appealed, but in his lawsuit he says that prison officials 
upheld the decision, citing a regulation banning any mail that 
incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or 
nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or 
correctional staff.” (Mr. Melvin is white.)

So he sued.

A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said 
officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not comment.

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

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.”

“They didn’t give a reason,” Mr. Washington said. “We figured they 
thought it would rile up the blacks against the whites.”

Mr. Blackmon, in a phone interview, said he had not heard about 
any other instance of his book’s being banned, though makers of a 
documentary based on it were prevented from filming in one Alabama 
town by the mayor and city attorney.

“The idea that a book like mine is somehow incendiary or a call to 
violence is so absurd,” he said.

While doing research on the book in small county courthouses 
around the state, he said, he was met sometimes with wariness but 
never with outright resistance.

“To be honest, these events had slipped deep enough into the past 
that there weren’t very many people who even knew to be cautious 
about them,” he said.

Indeed, the last of the thousands of convicts who had been toiling 
in the deadly Birmingham coal mines were moved out in 1928. They 
were sent to Kilby.

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