Why Did Alabama Prevent a Prisoner from Reading a History Book? An Interview with Douglas A. Blackmon

Ms. Begum is an HNN intern.

Douglas A. Blackmon is a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Last September, the Alabama Department of Corrections confiscated the book from Mark Melvin, a lifer at Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, on the grounds that it was “too incendiary” and “too provocative and could potentially stir up racial hatred (Mr. Melvin is white.)

Mr. Melvin has filed a lawsuit.

I spoke to Mr. Blackmon about the controversy.

First of all, can you give a brief outline of the book?
Slavery by Another Name examines how involuntary slavery and forced labor were resurrected in the South in the decades after the end of the Civil War, often by the same industrialists who had begun experimenting with more harsh forms of slavery in the years prior to the war.  At the heart of the new forms of forced labor was a perversion of the criminal justice system to make one of its primary goals the intimidation of African Americans back into a position of subservience as laborers to whites.

Why did you set out or what inspired you to carry out this investigation? Were there certain questions that you wanted answered?

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta region in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the desegregation of public schools.  In fact, my class was the first to begin the first day of first grade (in 1970) together, black and white, and go through twelve grades of public education fully integrated.  It was a very tumultuous time, and left me with a sharp sense that there were things deeply troubling American society around race.  And from an early age I felt compelled to try to understand those things, and why the country remained so divided around race for so long.

I began writing about and analyzing those questions at a very young age—11 in fact—and I have been writing about those issues ever since then. (I'm 47 now.)

Were there any discoveries that surprised you?  What did you find most interesting?

I was surprised by the level of brutality that was employed, and how recently it continued, right into the lifetimes of many people who are still around today.  And I was surprised at how many people were people forcibly coerced into labor they would not have freely chosen.  It's clear to me that millions of African Americans felt constrained by the system as it existed in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, and that the perversion of the justice system was as significant a force of intimidation to them as the lynchings and violence we are all more familiar with.

Obviously, the book’s had a dramatic impact. Were you surprised by this?

I hope Slavery by Another Name has had a positive impact. It was certainly my intention to examine and illuminate this history in a way so that more Americans might understand the gravity of what happened in that period of time, and recognize the importance to modern-day events of understanding the full truth of what was done to African Americans in that time.

What are your views on the case?

I can't imagine any reasonable basis for banning my book.  And no person of reasonable intelligence who has actually read the book could conclude otherwise.  While most of the book is devoted to a meticulous historical examination of the events that I describe, the introduction and epilogue are essentially essays on the importance of history and how to learn from it constructively.  Clearly, none of that was read by prison officials. I suspect they looked at the photographs in the center of the book, some of which do indeed show very harsh treatments of prisoners in early times, and reacted solely on the basis of that. Whatever the case, I believe it to be an irrational position.  

It is critical that Americans understand these events if we are ever to succeed in understanding the persistent gaps in economic achievement and educational attainment that remain in U.S. society today. Without a full understanding of how those fissures in America came to exist, we will never succeed in forging a shared vision for the future.

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