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A book too embarrassing to read

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 (www.eji.org) doesn't charge its clients but, says Mr. Stevenson, he will sometimes require them to read selected books.

Last year, Mr. 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 doctor's struggle to bring medical services to Haiti. The other was "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II," Douglas A. Blackmon's 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.

Mr. Stevenson says the prison allowed Mr. Melvin to receive the first book but banned the second. Prison officials, says Mr. Stevenson, 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."

Mr. Stevenson filed suit. As the case wends its way through the courts, it speaks with eloquence to our complicated relationship with African-American history here in this 86th observance of what was once called Negro History Week. America, says Mr. 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. Mr. Stevenson says the attorney for the state -- who declined to comment for this column -- has told him the prison is not worried about Mr. Melvin; he is not considered a disciplinary problem.

The issue is not security. Since filing the suit, says Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Stevenson feels it's "just a matter of time" before the nation begins to minimize "what segregation really was," like a black version of Holocaust denial.

That's 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 one's permission to do so.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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