Melvin v. Thomas: Prison Ban on “Slavery by Another Name”

On September 23, 2011, EJI filed a civil rights lawsuit charging that Kilby Correctional Facility in Mt. Meigs, Alabama, violated Mark Melvin's civil rights by prohibiting him from receiving the book "Slavery by Another Name."

On September 23, 2011, EJI filed a civil rights lawsuit charging that Kilby Correctional Facility in Mt. Meigs, Alabama, violated the civil rights of an incarcerated man by prohibiting him from receiving Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Slavery By Another Name

The book Slavery by Another Name by award-winning journalist and Senior National Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Douglas Blackmon documents how African Americans in Alabama and throughout the South were re-enslaved in the years following the Civil War, due in part to laws specifically written to facilitate the arbitrary arrest of African Americans. Unable to pay the resulting fines, in addition to the costs for their own arrests, they were sold as forced labor to mines, railroads, farms, and quarries. It won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2009.

Slavery by Another Name is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historical account of racial oppression and racial bias in the Southern United States,” wrote Bryan Stevenson in the complaint filed by EJI. It “does not advocate violence or a violent ideology, nor does it attempt to incite violence based on race.”

The Georgia Center for the Book, the largest non-profit literary organization in the Southeast and an affiliate of the Library of Congress, named Slavery by Another Name one of “25 Books All Georgians Should Read.”

The acclaimed book was made into a PBS documentary by the same name. The film was selected for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where following its screening, the audience gave a nearly two-minute standing ovation for its director Sam Pollard, whose directing credits include “Eyes on the Prize” and several “American Masters” documentaries for PBS. The film debuted on PBS stations nationwide in February 2012 as part of the channel’s Black History Month programming.

Kilby Prison Bans the Book

On September 21, 2010, Slavery by Another Name was mailed to Kilby inmate Mark Melvin. Captain Victor Napier told Mr. Melvin, “You know you can’t have [this book] here.” Mr. Melvin then filed a grievance stating he believed the book was a “work of history” and he should not be “denied access to it based on its content.”

Kilby Deputy Warden Willie Rowell informed Mr. Melvin that the decision to exclude the book was made by Warden John Cummins and Captain Napier, noting that the book was denied pursuant to Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) regulations that allow officials to withhold mail if the Warden thinks it could be an attempt to incite “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed or nationality.”

“The era of racial violence, lynching, and convict leasing in the South following Reconstruction is a deeply disturbing part of our country’s racial history that is important and must be understood if we are to make progress overcoming the legacy of slavery and racial subordination,” said Mr. Stevenson. “We can’t cope with the racial history of this country by banning books or preventing people from reading about it — even incarcerated people, who retain basic rights and protections that were violated in this case.”

EJI Files Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit 

On September 23, 2011, EJI filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on behalf of Mark Melvin, naming as defendants Kilby Deputy Warden Rowell, Captain Napier, Warden Cummins, current Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas, former Commissioner Richard Allen, and current Kilby Warden Bobby Barrett.

The complaint outlined how the defendants intentionally denied Mr. Melvin, who worked in the prison library, access to the book “based on its political and historical content pertaining to racism in the Southern United States.”

“The need for more informed thinking about race and discrimination is especially critical in prisons, which are disproportionately filled with people of color,” said Mr. Stevenson. “Banning an award-winning book about racial history in the South is not only misguided, but it’s injurious to anyone who is trying to advance our society on issues of race.”

In their answer to the complaint filed by EJI, Alabama prison officials admitted that they banned the book based on its content. They stated that their decision to deny access to the book was made “on the basis that the book, its title, its contents and/or its pictures could be used (or misused) by…inmates to incite violence or disobedience within the institution.”

Nationwide Media Scrutinize Alabama Prison’s Decision to Ban Slavery by Another Name

In February 2012, more than 50 media outlets across the country raised critical questions about Alabama prison officials’ decision to ban prisoners from reading the book because it contains embarrassing truths about American history.

Leonard Pitts’s column for the Miami Herald profiled EJI’s lawsuit, writing that 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.”

EJI’s Bryan Stevenson explained that prison officials banned the book because they 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.”

Unlike countries like South Africa and Rwanda that undertook truth and reconciliation processes to recover from severe, widescale human rights violations, explained Mr. Stevenson, America struggles with “denialism” — a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations.

News outlets agreed, printing Pitts’s nationally syndicated column with headlines such as “Book Is Too Embarrassing for Ala. Prison” and “Banned Book Exposes Embarrassing Segregation ‘Denialism.'”

From the Salem, Oregon Statesman Journal, which observed, “America never reconciled its racial history” and Tacoma, Washington’s News Tribune, “We can’t come to terms with our sordid past if we’re in denial about it,” to the Omaha World-Herald, “Don’t try to ignore history of Jim Crow horrors” and The Hutchinson News (Kansas), “Learn the truth and share it”, to The Tennessean, “Those embarrassed by our history try to suppress it” and South Carolina’s Beaufort Gazette, “Facing truth of past only way to build better future,” media across the country condemned Alabama’s attempt to suppress its shameful history.

The Ban Is Lifted

In the wake of growing public outrage about the prison’s indefensible decision to ban the book, Kilby officials lifted the ban and allowed Mark Melvin to read Slavery by Another Name. EJI then agreed to dismiss the lawsuit on January 17, 2013.