Archive for Sunday, February 19, 2012

Truth is key to reconciliation

February 19, 2012


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 doesn’t charge its clients, but, says Stevenson, he will sometimes require them to read selected books.

Last year, 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,” Douglas 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.

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

Stevenson filed suit. As the case wends its way through the courts, 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. America, says 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. Stevenson says the attorney for the state — who declined to comment for this column — has told him the prison is not worried about Melvin; he is not considered a disciplinary problem.

The issue is not security. Since filing the suit, says 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 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, 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 Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on His email address is


FalseHopeNoChange 6 years, 2 months ago

Thank Republicans for the likes of Pitts. 1854 anti-slavery Republicans were founded in New Hampshire. If not for Republicans, the Democrats would really have Pitts crying in the prisons of Alabama.

tomatogrower 6 years, 2 months ago

FHNC, you would not have belonged to the Republican party of the past, so don't try to make the modern Republican party look good.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

1) "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."

Noble words, indeed. But some things you're not supposed to talk about.

These statistics are "not politically correct", and are either supposed to be overlooked, or the reasons behind them are prejudicial and should be looked into.

The total number of American adults in jail or prison is about 230 million.

1) One out of every 99.1 American adults is behind bars. 2) One out of 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars. 3) One out of 15 Black adults is behind bars. 4) One out of 9 Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars.

From 'The New York Times' clipped from:

But there are some misleading things behind these statistics. One that immediately comes to mind is a driving offence that is very common, at least in urban legend, known as DWB. (Driving While Black)

And, considering that the United States leads the world in the number of people incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities, think about this: What are a lot of these people in prison incarcerated for?

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

I messed up. The population of the United States is about 230 million, that is not the number in jail or prison. The prison population is approximately 1.6 million + 723,000 = approximately 2.323 million.

'The New York Times' quote is:

"Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars."

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

2) "The United States leads the world in the number of people incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities. There are currently more than 2 million people in American prisons or jails. Approximately one-quarter of those people held in U.S. prisons or jails have been convicted of a drug offense. The United States incarcerates more people for drug offenses than any other country." Clipped from:

From the Justice Policy Institute: Pruning Prisons: How Cutting Corrections Can Save Money and Protect Public Safety Drug arrests and prosecutions fuel growing prison populations

The number of people in state prisons for drug offenses has increased 550 percent over the last 20 years. A recent JPI report found that the amount spent on "cops and courts" - not the rates of drug use - is correlated to admissions to prison for drug offenses. Counties that spend more on law enforcement and the judiciary admit more people to prison for drug offenses than counties that spend less. And increases in federal funding through the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program have promoted increases in resources dedicated to drug enforcement. As crime continues to fall in many communities, law enforcement will have more time to focus on aggressive policing of drug offenses; this can be expected to lead to even higher drug imprisonment rates and crowded fails and prisons. According to FBI reports, 83 percent of drug arrests are for possession of illegal drugs alone. And regardless of crime in a particular jurisdiction, police often target the same neighborhoods to make drug arrests, which can increase the disproportionate incarceration of people of color." Clipped from:

Considering the economic climate, I wonder what the results of this voter referendum would be:

Chose your vote:

1) Yes, I want nonviolent crimes that have no victims that are on the books, such as possession of illicit drugs, to remain in place. And, I want my income taxes and property taxes to be increased by 25% to pay for it.


2) No, I want the "War on Drugs" that was declared in 1971 by President Nixon to be throughly reviewed and the present laws on what are now illicit substances to be changed, and those substances to be heavily taxed, thus increasing public revenue. And, I want my income taxes and property taxes to be decreased by 10%.

I wonder what the popular vote would be on that one.

If vote # 2 passed, I'm quite sure that the disparity in incarceration rate between people of different genetic heritage would decline a great deal.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

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tomatogrower 6 years, 2 months ago

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Getaroom 6 years, 2 months ago

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beatrice 6 years, 2 months ago

I will never forget when someone who apparently wasn't "its_just_math" (according to the moderator) but who writes exactly like him, claimed that Whites had lost all power -- just because a Black man had been elected. Or the time he used a White Supremist website to support an argument.

Yes, we know what his biggest issue with Obama is.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

I missed something. Did I do something to stir up the pot? If so, I think the pot needed to be stirred up. Maybe people were showing their true colors, and they were not as white as the driven snow.

This is the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible,

---> with liberty and justice for all. <---

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