The Unbroken Link Between Slavery, Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration

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drinking fountain

Exhibit in the Henry Ford Musum in Dearborn, MI., which has a collection of items from the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement. Photo by Shannon McGee via Flickr

Belton “Money Rock” Platt was a young, flamboyant drug dealer who had a near-monopoly on cocaine in the Piedmont Courts housing project in Charlotte, N.C., during the 1980s cocaine epidemic. After spending 20 years in prison, he devoted his life to God and became a minister.

Journalist Pam Kelley, who covered Belton’s trial in 1986 as a 26-year-old reporter for the Charlotte Observer, chronicles his story in Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South. What she found offers some object lessons about race, crime and drugs today. In a chat with TCR’s J. Gabriel Ware, Kelley explains her motives behind writing the book, why she decided to place the Platt’s family generational misfortune, filled with drugs, prison, murder and suicide in the context of Charlotte’s determination to become a prosperous “world-class” city while still suffering from the effects of Jim Crow, and how Belton turned from an interview subject into a friend.

The Crime Report: Before this book, you hadn’t seen or talked to Belton in more than 25 years. What made you track him down? And were you surprised to find out that he was now a Christian preacher?

Pam Kelley: I bought Jay-Z’s autobiography “Decoded” in December 2011. It was Christmas present for my daughter, but I read it and became engrossed in Jay-Z’s life as a young crack dealer in Marcy Projects. That made me think about “Money Rock” and Piedmont Courts. I just didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t totally surprised to find out he was a minister. I’ve heard about people coming out prison and becoming ministers. And as I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve learned that he has a number of friends from prison who also became ministers.

TCR: A generational curse appeared to have terrorized Belton and his family—first with his father, and then him, and then with his sons. How did you make sense of that?

Kelley: An important part of the book is the collateral damage of mass incarceration, and I think Belton’s family, unfortunately, can almost be a case study. I think a lot of Americans are aware of what mass incarceration is, but I don’t think they understand that this gift keeps giving in terms of creating these terrible problems for our society.

Pam Kelley

Pam Kelley

In the book, I quote an academic book called Children of the Prison Boom where the researchers shows kids who had a father go to prison are at a higher risk for behavior disorders, etcetera—the authors basically say this is widening inequality. You send these fathers to prison for decades, and their kids grow up without fathers, and the kids have behavior issues and get into trouble and that’s the cycle we’ve created.

TCR: How has your relationship with Belton evolved over these past 30 years?

Kelley: I first met Belton in Central Prison and we were both pretty young. I was 26 and he was 22. When we finally met again, he said to me “I thought you were like in college.” But I didn’t really know him then. I was reporter, so the relationship was professional. But I did kind of like him because he had a sense of humor—even though I was interviewing him for a big story and he lied to me and didn’t tell me very much. But when you write a book and you talk to someone over years, you get to know them and their family. I went to his previous wife’s funeral after she died of cancer. I remember him telling me on the phone and breaking into tears.

I still stop in to see his mom and enjoy talking politics with her. She’s 82 and still very opinionated and wise. When you do these narrative nonfiction book projects and you’re writing about real people, you become part of their lives and they become part of your lives. Today, I regard Belton as friend, and I think he regards me in the same way.

TCR: “Money Rock” is not just a biography. It’s also a history lesson that covers a wide-range of social issues including the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, mass incarceration and racial inequality. What do you want readers take away from the book?

Kelley: This is an American story in pretty much every way. You can tell similar stories in any city in the New South—any city that once had slavery. I want people to be curious about  how our past created our present situation. Because if you don’t understand the past—Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal and lack of opportunity for black people to accumulate wealth—then you’d look at a high-crime neighborhood of black people and say “well, if  those people would just work harder, or have better habits…” But once you know the history, you can’t do that.

Since I began writing “Money Rock,” a lot of things have happened in Charlotte that really throw light on some of the issues I addressed in the book. Exactly two years ago, Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was shot and killed by police. There were some protests in Charlotte that got pretty violent—one man was even killed. Charlotte has always managed to smooth over its racial strife, but this kind of unmasked Charlotte and brought it all out in the open. And this narrative is taking place in different ways in many, many cities across the country. They are beginning to see how their past is still affecting their present. So, I think it’s really important for white America to know the history. And I think there are black Americans who don’t know this history, too, because a lot of it wasn’t taught.

TCR:  Is there anything you discovered about yourself personally while working on this book or as you reflect on covering Belton’s story from the 1980s until now?

Kelley: Just how much I didn’t know as young reporter. I grew up in the Midwest in a town where I had no black kids in my classes, and I moved to the South for college—I went to Chapel Hill. There was plenty of racism and segregation in the North but living in the South and covering public housing projects were all pretty new to me. When I went into Piedmont Courts and saw that the buildings were run down, and the crime was terrible—right in the middle of this prosperous city—I kind of took it at face value like “Oh this is what a public housing is like.” It didn’t really occur to me to ask why. I didn’t have the context to ask some of the bigger questions that I have explored in this book.

I’m also more aware of my white privilege and how it benefited me. Imagine if somebody came here from another planet and they knew nothing about our history, and you were showing them around town. Suddenly, you stop at a place that looks worse than everywhere else, and the people who live there just happened to have darker skin: how would you explain that? When you start pulling that thread, it goes all the way right back to slavery. We created this construct to justify slavery—that’s the only way to explain it.

I think that’s how a lot of white people go through life because we don’t have to think about that. But the one thing that changed me is that I see it now. I can’t not see.

TCR: What’s your stance on the criminal justice system?

Kelly: First of all, we need to stop putting so many people in prison, and we need to stop putting them in prison for so long. We need to find alternatives to incarceration. Incarceration in the United States has been coming down a bit, but we still have the highest incarceration rate in the world—and the same thing with black men and the incarceration rate. There’s a lot of systemic racism that needs to be addressed. And once people get out of prison we need to make it easier for them to get back into society. It’s so hard now that if you don’t have a family to support you, you can end up homeless.

Gabriel Ware

J. Gabriel Ware

I’ve learned a lot about North Carolina’s state prison policies while writing this book. Belton’s oldest son spent more than three years in solitary confinement. They have since dialed that back, but to me that just has been an embarrassment and a tragedy. I think a lot of states, including North Carolina, need to reduce their use of solitary confinement.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.

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