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PORTSIDE  January 2013, Week 1

PORTSIDE January 2013, Week 1

Subject:

REVIEW - Slavery by Another Name

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Date:

Sat, 5 Jan 2013 16:33:01 -0500

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REVIEW

Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas A. Blackmon

Notes by Ted Pearson

Published by Portside

I recently finished reading this book, subtitled “The
Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil
War to World War II.”  In my opinion, every person
who wants to understand the heavy weight of
racism on the United States today would do well to
read this book.

The profound mistrust of the U. S. criminal justice
system among African Americans is rooted in the
system of convict labor documented by Blackmon.
That system is at the root of the persistent huge and
growing chasm between rich and poor and Black
and white in the United States.  It is at the root of
the new wave of mass incarcerations of Black and
Latino men and women.

Convict slave labor of the post-Civil War South was
not only very profitable.  It was absolutely
indispensable to corporations for breaking any
strike that might have been attempted by free
workers.  Scabs did not have to be recruited.
Convict slaves simply replaced strikers.  The whip
replaced wages.

A PBS documentary based on the book narrated by
Lawrence Fishburne won Official Selection of the
2012 Sundance Film Festival.  In my opinion, the
film’s dramatizations fail to convey the horrors of
the conditions, torture, disease and death in the
slave labor camps of the South documented by
Blackmon.  To depict the murders, beatings,
starvation and conditions under which the “new
slaves” of the post Civil War South lived and labored
would not have been possible on public television.
(The documentary can be viewed at
http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/watch/.)

I am not a new to the struggle against racism.  One
could say I was born into it – as a child of 12 I left
Louisville Kentucky with my mother in 1954, fleeing
from the racist repression of the state that had
charged and convicted Carl Braden with conspiracy
to overthrow the state government by selling a
house in a white suburb to an African-American
family.

I had heard about the convict leasing system in the
South, through which men and women,
overwhelmingly African American, were sentenced to
hard labor.  More recently the works of Angela Davis
and Michelle Alexander  have noted the continuity
between the convict leasing system and the current
mass incarceration of African Americans.

I was unprepared, however, for the scope and
barbarity of this system documented by Blackmon.
The new slaves numbered in the hundreds of
thousands.  They were rented out to work in mines,
mills, quarries, factories, and plantations.  Their
“contracts” were bought and sold as had been their
forbearers under chattel slavery.  Corporate slave
enterprises built the wealth of the “new” southern
capitalist class.  Many were later taken over by Wall
Street banks and corporations such as U. S. Steel.
Their true history has been erased.

In its place we have the mythology taught in our
schools as U. S. history which covers up this crime.
It not only white-washes ante-bellum slavery,
suggesting that “only a few” slave owners were cruel.
The official mythology acknowledges that slavery
was wrong, but tells us that it was eliminated at the
end of the Civil War.  It tells us that the freed slaves
were not equipped for democracy, that they tended
toward idleness, lust and crime and required the
kind and gentle hand of white men to help them
improve.

I always understood and rejected this mythology as
an attempt to justify chattel slavery and jim crow
segregation.  However, Blackmon makes it clear,
that this was the rationale for maintaining a slave
system long after it was presumably banished by the
13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1865.
The convict leasing system re-enslaved tens of
thousands of free men and women who were Black.

Any white person could accuse any Black person of
any “crime,” including vagrancy (being alive with no
money or proof of a job), gambling, drinking,
swearing, being impolite to a white person, and very
commonly, breaking a contract, or failure to pay a
debt.  A local justice of the peace would “hold court”
and find the victim guilty.  A fine would be assessed
plus court costs.  A representative of a corporate
mine, factory, or plantation would pay the fine plus
costs, and the victim would be forced to make his
mark on a contract to work for the enterprise for a
set period in order to pay off the debt.  At the end of
the contract the prisoner would often have incurred
new debts, fines, or costs.  Often the only escape
was through death.

The contract would require the purchaser to keep
the prisoner locked up, often permanently in chains.
There were no requirements for food and clothing,
and many starved and died from exposure.  No
punishment was off-limits.  Whippings and beatings
were standard punishments for failing to meet
production quotas.  There were no exceptions for the
sick, or those injured by the beatings.  Many convict
slaves were whipped multiple times in a day.  If a
beating disabled a convict he was often shot and
killed.  The owner would simply order more convict
slaves from the local sheriff or justice of the peace.

The system established and reinforced a culture in
which being Black was to be a criminal.  It was
transformed into the current system of mass
incarceration of African Americans, which has been
aptly dubbed the “new jim crow.”  This system has
terrorized African Americans for over 8 generations
after slavery purportedly ended, and barred them
from almost all paths of upward mobility such as
those open to European and other immigrants.

Thousands were literally worked to death in these
slave labor camps.  Mortality rates as high as 30 per
cent were common.  Unlike chattel slaves, who had
to be bought and were a “capital investment,”
convict slaves could be “rented” for a few dollars a
month.  When they died they were easily replaced.
The bodies of thousands lie buried in  unmarked
graves.  Many were never recorded as having been
charged or convicted of any crime.  Many were
effectively nameless, lost to their families from
whom they were stolen when they disappeared into
the maw of the new slavery.

Conditions in the slave labor camps of the factories,
mines, mills and fields of the “new” South compare
with those in the Nazi slave labor camps during
World War II.  Unlike Europe’s Jews and others
targeted by the Nazis, the victims of the new
American slavery were usually illiterate and without
connections or influence.  Their capture and lease
as convict slave laborers was often unrecorded.
They were often nameless to their masters.  Their
families lived in such terror that they did not talk
about what happened.  The new slaves of the United
States in the South and their graves just
disappeared into the mists of history.

The official mythology is so pervasive that recently
Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., a noted architect whose
family is descended from James English, one of the
leading corporate slavers, is campaigning for a
monument in downtown Atlanta in tribute to the
“great families” that pioneered and built the city
after the Civil War, including English, Joel Hurt and
others whose fortunes were built through large scale
industrial use of slave labor.

Blackmon, a white native of the South and Wall
Street Journal Atlanta Bureau Chief, spent years
reconstructing the history of these men and women
and the system that enslaved them, combing the
scant records that were kept and interviewing
surviving family members.  He lays out the social
and political debt that the United States as a nation
owes to the people of African descent who were kept
in a state of slavery and racist repression past well
1945, within the memory of many people still living
today.  Indeed, chain gangs of slave convict laborers
did not completely end in the U. S. until 1955, and
some states have re-introduced them since 1995,
notably Alabama and Arizona.

Blackmon notes that “U. S. Law is unequivocal that
the deaths of executives who were responsible for
dubious actions don’t end a company’s legal
obligations.”  Blackmon establishes in chilling detail
the social costs of four centuries of racism and
slavery.  These costs are a debt that must be paid by
our society as a whole.

December 31, 2012

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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