The New York Times reported yesterday that Mark Melvin, a prison inmate in Alabama, is suing the state department of corrections because they won’t let him have a book his attorney sent him. His lawsuit charges that prison officials characterized the book as “a security threat,” as “too incendiary” and “too provocative.”
The book at the center of the controversy is “too incendiary” for any person, that is, with an honest intellect and a sense of compassion to read without being shocked and enraged at the combination of greed, indifference and murderous callousness it lays bare.
For the book Mark Melvin wants to read is Douglas Blackmon’s history of one of the most shameful episodes of American history – the impact of the American gulag white politicians, government bureaucrats, and businessmen constructed and operated in the South from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries to imprison and steal the labor of, overwhelmingly, Black men for their own profit.
Its title, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, is apt; and Blackmon’s thorough and sensitive recounting of this long-neglected story is worthy of the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction it was awarded in 2009.
In the book’s introduction, Blackmon writes that, while on a reporting assignment in Alabama for the Wall Street Journal, he was provoked to explore the question, as he put it, of “What would be revealed if American corporations were examined through the same sharp lens of historical confrontation as the one then being trained on German corporations that relied on Jewish labor during World War II and Swiss banks that robbed victims of the Holocaust of their fortunes?”
What he discovered was a tale of horror – of upwards of 200,000 men most often arrested on the flimsiest of charges and sentenced to the forced-labor camps in the South that were in effect owned by U.S. Steel and other iconic American corporations. There, most were worked in the most brutal conditions to the point of exhaustion, of permanent injury of one sort or another, and of death.
This was the United States of America in the eight decades between the Civil War and World War II – a “world,” Blackmon writes, “in which the seizure and sale of a black man – even a black child – was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary … Millions of blacks lived in that shadow – as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system’s caprice.”
One can understand why some people, in and out of government, would fear a book that unblinkingly explores the corporate greed and brutality supported by the governmental greed and brutality supported by the individual greed and brutality that played a large role in America’s rise during that span to industrial supremacy.
Reading Blackmon provokes the same thought that all such powerful histories of the great crimes of the recent past do: There is a reckoning to be made for this.
I’m sure that’s why Alabama prison officials were so disturbed by Mark Melvin’s request. Perhaps they were hoping he’d ask forGone With The Wind.
Lee A. Daniels is Director of Communications for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Editor In Chief ofTheDefendersOnline.com