A story for Black History Month.
Bryan Stevenson is director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala.-based organization he founded in 1989 to provide legal representation for the indigent and incarcerated. The EJI doesn't charge its clients but, says Stevenson, he will sometimes require them to read selected books.
Last year, Stevenson sent two books to prisoner Mark Melvin, who is doing life for a murder he committed when he was 14. One was Mountains Beyond Mountains, about a doctors struggle to bring medical services to Haiti. The other was Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmons Pulitzer Prize-winning account of how the South instituted a form of de facto slavery by mass arresting black men on nonsense charges and selling them to plantations, turpentine farms and other places of back-breaking labor.
Stevenson says the prison allowed Melvin to receive the first book, but banned the second. Prison officials, says Stevenson, felt it was too provocative, they didnt like the title, they didnt like the idea that the title conveyed. They didnt read the book, but they were concerned about it and thought that it would be too dangerous to have in the prisons.
Stevenson filed suit. As the case wends its way through the courts, it speaks with an eloquence to our complicated relationship with African-American history here in this 86th observance of what was once called Negro History Week. America, says Stevenson, struggles with denialism, i.e., a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations.
The issue is not Mark Melvin. Stevenson says the attorney for the state who declined comment for this column has told him the prison is not worried about Melvin; he is not considered a disciplinary problem.
The issue is not security. Since filing the suit, says Stevenson, he has heard from other prisoners who tell him that years ago, there were a handful of Alabama prisons where the wardens would not let them watch Roots.
No, the issue, it seems obvious, is a frightful, embarrassing history and the suppression thereof.
Other countries that have tried to recover from severe human rights problems that have lasted for decades, says Stevenson, 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.
The key words being against their will. Indeed, Stevenson feels its just a matter of time before the nation begins to minimize what segregation really was, like a black version of Holocaust denial.
Thats already happening. In 2010, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour claimed integration in his state was a very pleasant experience. Actually, integration in his state was marked by, among other atrocities, a firebombing, a fatal riot, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the murders of three voting rights workers.
The only effective weapon against such lies is to learn the truth and tell it, shout it in the face of untruth, equivocation and denial. Bear witness.
The good news, assuming you are not a prisoner in Alabama, is that you need no ones permission to do so.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.