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Slavery by Another Name
Blaming the victim is pretty common. Relentlessly, we judge people. A homeless person is accused of choosing an unpredictable and stressful life. A rape victim who is attractive, must have “asked for it.” Recently, a rich, African American entrepreneur, couldn’t comprehend why slaves had put up with slavery for so long. He called it a choice.
Most people today believe that at the conclusion of the Civil War, with the passing of the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution (1865), slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished and ended forever.
In the book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, (2008) Douglas A. Blackmon, the author, documents how a new slavery soon evolved and took hold in the southern states until the early 1940s.
Yes, that’s right. The Civil War may have ultimately reunited the United States as one country, but African American freedom was short-lived. The 14th Amendment (1868) granted African Americans citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws and the 15th Amendment (1870) gave African American men the right to vote, but Reconstruction had all but ended by 1874, only a decade after four years of wide-spread military carnage.
American history for the period of time between 1865 and World War II is often forgotten. Being black in a white world, especially in the southern states, was precarious.
The justice system was unequal to non-existent for African Americans; whites controlled every facet of their lives. Intimidation, incarceration, enslavement, torture, and murderous bloodshed of blacks were the norm.
Here’s what happened. Trumped-up charges, such as arresting someone for vagrancy (no money, no job), were used to intimidate black folk while serving to enrich the pockets of lawmen, judges, businessmen, and local and state governments.
When it was time for cotton to be planted or picked, for timber to be cut, or when a new coal mine needed workers, then local government officials would increase arrests of African Americans, fill their jails, and lease the prisoners out to businesses. This system of convict leasing (and later, chain gangs) was lucrative to everyone but the people who were forced to labor under horrendous conditions.
Imagine walking down the street and being challenged by a lawman. You are taken to jail. Soon you are standing before a local judge who finds you guilty of a minor offense. The fine might be a few dollars, but like today, the administrative fees are outrageous.
You don’t have the money and you can’t get it.
A businessman in the courtroom offers to pay your fine and fees but you must agree to work off the debt. You have no choice. You agree to work for a set number of months. You mark an X as your signature on a contract you can’t read. Soon you’re locked up in chains like an animal or a former slave.
You are worked to the bone. You’re treated inhumanely including beatings and whippings for insubordination or for not working fast enough. Your meals are minimal and disgusting. Your clothing and bedding are infested with bugs. You’re not offered medical care for disease or injury.
When your term of incarceration ends, the date is ignored or it’s extended on a bogus charge. If you’re released, you’re well aware that real freedom for you doesn’t exist. You’re the wrong color.
When the southern states began using their criminal courts to settle civil debts, they incorporated a new slavery system. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for a crime”. Every free black American was at risk of being enslaved as a result of a false claim, a corrupt court, and an illegal fine.
Ironically, prior to the end of the Civil War an African American in the southern states was usually treated better than after the war. This was because previously a slave had value to the owner. The slave could be bought and sold, used as collateral in contracts, and have offspring.
In the post-war period in the south, a convict’s death was inconsequential to the bottom line or profit of a business. When people of color were worked to death, they were quickly replaced with another forced laborer.
The northern states may not have had debt slavery carried out with sham arrests, but racism and unequal justice were constant threats. Lynching, common in the south as a form of white control, also occurred in the north.
Sadly, after winning a Civil War to abolish slavery, the north, in the form of the federal government, did not have the will to end the new slavery. The rights of freed blacks were mostly ignored and forgotten due in part to the impossible task of finding impartial white judges and jurors in the states of the former Confederacy.
While it’s easy to blame the secessionist southern states for slavery, the northern states and the federal government were guilty of accepting the new slavery after the Reconstruction Period ended. There was little appetite for an all-out fight.
The south weaved a story of happy Negroes and the north accepted the myth so that it could further a federal government run by and for many white supremacists as it expanded its economic power.
Later, in the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this. He said: “The South deluded itself with the illusion that the Negro was happy in his place; the North deluded itself with the illusion that it had freed the Negro. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slave, a legal entity, but it failed to free the Negro, a person.”
Today we have many people who believe there is no good reason to reexamine history; talking about slavery, they plead, is counterproductive to moving forward.
But when we ignore history, we hear of people who believe that slavery was a choice.
We see politicians eager to use racial divisiveness through false claims in order to pass their agendas.
We hear African Americans blame the black victims. They believe that during the post-Civil War period there were “good” blacks and “bad” blacks. The “bad” blacks were the ones who were incarcerated and held in southern slavery.
The truth is that anyone without economic or political power, including whites, could have been rounded up by local authorities if they had the misfortune of encountering a corrupt law enforcement official who was hell-bent on enriching his wallet, or of pleasing a local businessman eager for additional slave laborers.
Some would say we’ve made a great deal of progress since the new slavery was ended during the early 1940s. Others would examine today’s world and see little progress.
What’s your opinion?
Until next time, happy writing and reading!