Whitewashed Out of Attica - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Whitewashed Out of Attica

Whitewashed Out of Attica

By Josh Melville


Because truth IS sometimes stranger than fiction.

By Josh Melville

At the age of 11, my adolescence was arrested. Doing poorly in school and fantasizing about the return of the father who left years ago, my mother one day revealed the truth — that my father was in prison for political bombings and had died in the country’s largest prison uprising. 


She showed me New York Times clippings with headlines about the “accidental” death of Mad Bomber Melville. The article called him an “uprising leader.” Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler told me personally, “Your father was murdered. It was no accident.”

A bullet ended his life but it would begin my mission to understand why.

Nine years after the retaking of Attica, ABC produced a TV-movie about the event, with Morgan Freeman as the leader of the rebellion. As a teenager still trying to comprehend my father’s choices, I watched with great interest. But I could find no trace of him. When the ending credits rolled, Mom was relieved that her son would not have to see a sensational re-creation of his father’s death, but she could also see my disappointment.

She told me Dad’s role in the uprising was given to other characters. The Hollywood term for this is called “compositing”: blending real-life persons into single fictional ones for the sake of narrative expedience. My radical and politically articulate white father was composited into several militant Blacks. In the second Attica movie made in 1994 called Against the Wall, there again were no white or Hispanic leaders involved in Attica. My father, a middle-aged, balding Bronx nerd had been composited into, among others, a bulging-eyed Samuel L. Jackson.

By default, these cinema histories would now become the most public understanding of the event, and they would influence others attracted to the subject for decades to come.

My father’s war was against racialism; he donated his bail money to the Black Panthers. They in turn guarded his body from theft at his funeral. So in giving away his Attica contributions to men he considered brothers, Sam Melville would have approved.

But I didn’t.

My father had vanished, again. This time in the media’s mania for reduction.

Not willing to accept that, I endeavored to find out exactly what my father’s role was in one of the deadliest prison uprisings in U.S. history. With prison commissioner Russell G. Oswald publicly saying, “The man we feared most in the yard was Melville,” one would think this would not be hard. But it would take 25 years of exhausting and borderline illegal research.

amtb attica rocketlauncher cu 02 1971

The Attica rocket launcher, 1971

Source Photo courtesy of Josh Melville

My main obstacle though was a codependence that had developed between those with a platform and desire to expose the state’s outrageous crimes (filmmakers, journalists and civil rights lawyers) and their enablers, prisoner witnesses who stood to profit by supporting a racially divided version of Attica.

The most profound and disturbing example of this? The 20-year-long civil case against the state, alleging Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s “wanton disregard for human life” when taking back the prison, according to the Attica inmate attorneys who wove a tapestry of peaceful inmates confronting state troopers ready to murder “those people.” This new narrative suppressed the fact that the uprising was not spontaneous but planned.

And what inspired real fear in the troopers was not the bellicose prison groups like the Black Panthers, but one white guy from the Bronx, known as “the bomber,” whose notorious defiance against the prison’s administration unified the racially divided gangs in the months before the uprising. According to historian Heather Ann Thompson in her recent book Blood in the Water, this unification is what made the uprising possible.

During this trial in 1991, I, now a writer and no longer 11, went to Buffalo, New York, and had a chance to talk to the actual leaders. They welcomed me as family and told a very different truth than the one playing out in the courtroom. My dad spent the first two days of the rebellion talking with officials to return the prison to authorities peacefully. When negotiations seemed futile, he knew what would come next. He resigned his post and assembled several dozen inmates into a militia.

amtb sam josh photobooth

The author and his father, Sam. 

Source Photo courtesy of Josh Melville

State troopers watched from the rooftops for the next two days and filmed my father as he oversaw the making of over 400 Molotov cocktails; the converting of a latrine into a large L-shaped trench lined with chemicals to trap advancing troopers; and in an epic bluff, a prop grenade launcher. These inmate leaders described my father to me as a fearless organizer with a unique power to coalesce Black and white, who transformed the situation in the yard from an angry mob to an inspired episode of racial unity. But over the past 45 years, this fact was eclipsed by a media opting to sell a polarized story in which a white, educated inmate siding with Blacks was simply inconvenient.

Because of this omission, Attica today is perceived as a “Black cause,” and in the pantheon of recent police brutality cases, it’s become aligned with some dividing politics and ultimately distilled into a cultural joke. That is, a spear of sarcasm yuppies throw at their boss when asked to work late and they wag a finger, “Attica, Attica!

What a victory for the race-dividing police state. How sad for the Black, white and brown men who sacrificed their lives to make a bigger point.

For me, a son still searching for a vanished father and a past furiously denied, a bullet ended his life but it began my mission to understand, my catharsis realized in the form of a book I will soon complete titled American Timebomb — a double-helical story of my father’s and my own, which I hope will bring peace to me and all who were inspired to call him a hero.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories