Every year for the past several, I have become the point person for the Black History Month celebration at my church. It is not a position I’ve ever sought, but it has obviously sought me. I had called a meeting of potentially interested parties in early December, so that I might offload some of the responsibility. But I was so sick, not only did I not go to church, I had forgotten that I had called the meeting until after the fact. Opportunity missed; so it goes.

At the end of the first adult education hour, which featured a guest speaker, I recommended that people view Slavery by Another Name, a new PBS documentary based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, narrated by Laurence Fishburne (pictured) before the following session. Some folks did watch, and it is interesting to note that it was a piece of American history that most in the room were oblivious to. My wife and I had seen the film at an advanced showing at UAlbany a couple weeks earlier.

From a description of the book:
Tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible ‘debts,’ prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude.

As it turns out prison officials in Alabama have “banned inmate Mark Melvin from reading” the book, as they, “says attorney Bryan Stevenson, felt it was ‘too provocative, they didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the idea that the title conveyed.’”

Stevenson made some cogent points as he filed suit. “America struggles with ‘denialism,’ i.e., a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations. ‘Other countries that have tried to recover from severe human rights problems that have lasted for decades…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.’…

“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.”

I also addressed issues of popular culture. I wanted to show a TEDx video by Jay Smooth, but it proved to be too technologically daunting. So I suggested that people look at his …Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race, and its predecessor, on my Times Union blog. Ah, a good use for it.

6 Responses to “Black History Month and Segregation Denialism”

  • CGHill says:

    I don’t get Barbour’s, um, whitewash. He’s older than I am (though not that much); surely he lived through the same things that I lived through and remember quite well.

  • tom mckinnon says:

    People like Barbour are a cold face of evil, a lot of politicians have become deniers of truth, we must fight them at every single lie! All good men have to do is stay silent in the face of evil, and evil wins!

  • Reader Wil says:

    Thank you Roger for your post. It is so disgusting that one group in society is discriminated against. In Australia the indigenous people were treated like animals till far after WW II. That’s why I admire Willie Gordon so much. He shows in a noble and wise way that we can learn from each other. Fact is that we all originate from Africa according to a documentary on National Geographic. We are all black!

  • On one level, I empathize a bit with the prison personnel who banned the book.

    A book like that can cause all sorts of problems, particularly with con men who want to know what to say to get the pity and results they want. Charles Manson, for example, is now an environmentalist. I feel it’s important to remember that a lot of people in prison are in there for a very good reason.

    On another level, I’m really disturbed by it. Many prisoners have a strong “power motive” (a psychological term for the need to influence others.) Many are in prison because they expressed their power motive in antisocial ways. But as people such as Malcolm X show, people with strong power motive can be positively influenced to change the status quo in pro-social ways as well.

    There were better ways to handle what I think Bryan Stevenson was attempting to accomplish. It’s a good idea to send prisoners reading material on issues of social justice; prisoners often read a lot because there isn’t a whole lot else to do. But he might have wanted to consult with someone who has been inside the system before attempting to just send a book like that. (If Stevenson’s genuine motive was to inform prisoners of social justice issues, rather than simply create publicity for his book.)

  • Roger says:

    It’s not Stevenson’s book – he’s the prisoner’s lawyer.

  • Wow, I feel like an idiot. Oops.

    Still would suggest that the book entering the general community would be a bad idea from the perspective of the prison personnel.

    But if it’s communication between a lawyer and his client and the book is only in Melvin’s possession, then I’d say that’s a serious violation there.

    But I’m going to shut up now as I haven’t read the book yet at all, and I don’t know much about the general hypothesis beyond evidence that people were convicted on minor charges and then exploited as slave labor. Which does still happens, both in prisons and then subsequently when the person has a “record” and can’t find regular employment. (You can read more on the “pro” side of the prison work program argument here: http://www.nij.gov/journals/257/real-work-programs.html ; http://www.nij.gov/journals/257/piechart.html The NIJ is basically the research arm of the DoJ.)

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