Exploiting black labor after the abolition of slavery
The U.S. criminal justice system is riven by racial disparity.
The Obama administration pursued a plan to reform it. An entire news organization, The Marshall Project, was launched in late 2014 to cover it. Organizations like Black Lives Matter and The Sentencing Project are dedicated to unmaking a system that unjustly targets people of color.
But how did we get this system in the first place? Our ongoing historical research project investigates the relationship between the press and convict labor. While that story is still unfolding, we have learned what few Americans, especially white Americans, know: the dark history that produced our current criminal justice system.
If anything is to change – if we are ever to “end this racial nightmare, and achieve our country,” as James Baldwin put it – we must confront this system and the blighted history that created it.
During Reconstruction, the 12 years following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, former slaves made meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.
As the prominent historian Eric Foner writes in his masterwork on Reconstruction, “Black participation in Southern public life after 1867 was the most radical development of the Reconstruction years, a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.”
But this moment was short-lived.
As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, the “slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
History is made by human actors and the choices they make.
According to Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery by Another Name,” the choices made by Southern white supremacists after abolition, and the rest of the country’s accommodation, “explain more about the current state of American life, black and white, than the antebellum slavery that preceded.”
Designed to reverse black advances, Redemption was an organized effort by white merchants, planters, businessmen and politicians that followed Reconstruction. “Redeemers” employed vicious racial violence and state legislation as tools to prevent black citizenship and equality promised under the 14th and 15th amendments.
By the early 1900s, nearly every southern state had barred black citizens not only from voting but also from serving in public office, on juries and in the administration of the justice system.
The South’s new racial caste system was not merely political and social. It was thoroughly economic. Slavery had made the South’s agriculture-based economy the most powerful force in the global cotton market, but the Civil War devastated this economy.
How to build a new one?
Ironically, white leaders found a solution in the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States in 1865. By exploiting the provision allowing “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” to continue as “a punishment for crime,” they took advantage of a penal system predating the Civil War and used even during Reconstruction.
A new form of control
With the help of profiteering industrialists they found yet a new way to build wealth on the bound labor of black Americans: the convict lease system.
Here’s how it worked. Black men – and sometimes women and children – were arrested and convicted for crimes enumerated in the Black Codes, state laws criminalizing petty offenses and aimed at keeping freed people tied to their former owners’ plantations and farms. The most sinister crime was vagrancy – the “crime” of being unemployed – which brought a large fine that few blacks could afford to pay.
Black convicts were leased to private companies, typically industries profiteering from the region’s untapped natural resources. As many as 200,000 black Americans were forced into back-breaking labor in coal mines, turpentine factories and lumber camps. They lived in squalid conditions, chained, starved, beaten, flogged and sexually violated. They died by the thousands from injury, disease and torture.
For both the state and private corporations, the opportunities for profit were enormous. For the state, convict lease generated revenue and provided a powerful tool to subjugate African-Americans and intimidate them into behaving in accordance with the new social order. It also greatly reduced state expenses in housing and caring for convicts. For the corporations, convict lease provided droves of cheap, disposable laborers who could be worked to the extremes of human cruelty.
Every southern state leased convicts, and at least nine-tenths of all leased convicts were black. In reports of the period, the terms “convicts” and “negroes” are used interchangeably.
Of those black Americans caught in the convict lease system, a few were men like Henry Nisbet, who murdered nine other black men in Georgia. But the vast majority were like Green Cottenham, the central figure in Blackmon’s book, who was snatched into the system after being charged with vagrancy.
A principal difference between antebellum slavery and convict leasing was that, in the latter, the laborers were only the temporary property of their “masters.” On one hand, this meant that after their fines had been paid off, they would potentially be let free. On the other, it meant the companies leasing convicts often absolved themselves of concerns about workers’ longevity. Such convicts were viewed as disposable and frequently worked beyond human endurance.
The living conditions of leased convicts are documented in dozens of detailed, firsthand reports spanning decades and covering many states. In 1883, Blackmon writes, Alabama prison inspector Reginald Dawson described leased convicts in one mine being held on trivial charges, in “desperate,” “miserable” conditions, poorly fed, clothed, and “unnecessarily chained and shackled.” He described the “appalling number of deaths” and “appalling numbers of maimed and disabled men” held by various forced-labor entrepreneurs spanning the entire state.
Dawson’s reports had no perceptible impact on Alabama’s convict leasing system.
The exploitation of black convict labor by the penal system and industrialists was central to southern politics and economics of the era. It was a carefully crafted answer to black progress during Reconstruction – highly visible and widely known. The system benefited the national economy, too. The federal government passed up one opportunity after another to intervene.
Convict lease ended at different times across the early 20th century, only to be replaced in many states by another racialized and brutal method of convict labor: the chain gang.
Convict labor, debt peonage, lynching – and the white supremacist ideologies of Jim Crow that supported them all – produced a bleak social landscape across the South for African-Americans.
Black Americans developed multiple resistance strategies and gained major victories through the civil rights movement, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow fell, and America moved closer than ever to fulfilling its democratic promise of equality and opportunity for all.
But in the decades that followed, a “tough on crime” politics with racist undertones produced, among other things, harsh drug and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were applied in racially disparate ways. The mass incarceration system exploded, with the rate of imprisonment quadrupling between the 1970s and today.
Michelle Alexander famously calls it “The New Jim Crow” in her book of the same name.
Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with 2.2 million behind bars, even though crime has decreased significantly since the early 1990s. And while black Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 37 percent of the incarcerated population. Forty percent of police killings of unarmed people are black men, who make up merely 6 percent of the population, according to a 2015 Washington Post report.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose otherwise.
Question: Why does WordPress not allow the category ‘Black Americans’ with a capital ‘B’?
That Conservative, illiberal Nick Clegg is keen to do the Tories’ work
George Osborne has made it clear that he plans to introduce “billions” more in welfare cuts if the Tories win the next election, including a possible reduction in the £26,000 household benefit cap and new limits on child benefit, but where does Nick Clegg stand? At the Deputy PM’s final monthly press conference of the year, I asked him whether he was prepared to consider a reduction in the benefit cap in the next parliament. He told me:
It’s not something that I’m advocating at the moment because we’ve only just set this new level and it’s £26,000, which is equivalent to earning £35,000 before tax…I think we need to keep that approach, look and see how it works, see what the effects are, but not rush to start changing the goalposts before the policy has properly settled down.
The key words here are “at the moment”. While Clegg again declared that he believed the priority should be to remove universal pensioner benefits from the well-off (“you start from the top and you work down”), he was careful not rule out a cut in the level of the cap.
Spiked has a good article on modern slavery being make-believe and Theresa May’s Modern Slavery bill addressing a non-existant problem. This blog has addressed slavery not existing. Spiked are on the Want to make a worthwhile donation this Solstice? page.
Firefighters to strike on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Tony Blair intervened directly in a firefighters’ strike while the FBU was headed by a Labourite idiot. Strange to see Blair referring to the “real world” since he was a total stranger to it.
Home Secretary Theresa May fails to provide any evidence that the Guardian’s publishing the Edward Snowden leaks have damaged national security as claimed by boss of MI5, Andrew Parker. Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs committee told May “What you have given us today, and what we have heard so far, is only second-hand information. Mr Parker and Sir John are making statements in open session and nobody knows what the follow-up is.” and “Everyone is appointed by the prime minister … They are asking questions of each other, and giving answers to each other … That is exactly why we need to see them [the agency heads]. But you don’t want us to see them at all.”
The ConDem coalition government has published the HS2 bill. At 49,910 pages long it evades democracy by preventing representations. 891 pages would need to be read every day to simply read it in the 8 weeks for representations. It presents a wonderful opportunity for protestors although it will waste a lot of paper and ink. No MPs were seen under the bill in parliament as it was passed almost unanimously last night.
A source close to the government said “That was a good wheeze – it was one of Lansley’s again. Drowning the NHS in bureaucracy, castrating 38degrees, charities and the unions with the lobbying bill and now this. We’ve decided to ruthlessly pursue our narrow class interests now that it’s accepted that we have no chance to win the general election. HS2 should sustain us for a decade or two if we take it easy on the port.”
The Guardian asks what it would take to regain Labour voters. The comments are clearly calling for nationalisation of utilities and trains and to abandon Neo-Liberalism. No chance of that with this ‘Labour’ party.
I must confess that even I was taken in by Miliband pretending to be a Socialist at the conference this year. It only lasted about two days. It’s very clear what the Labour party needs to do to attract voters. I’m effectively disenfranchised without a choice between the three main Neo-Liberal parties. It’s clear that there are many that feel exactly the same.
Shadow Home Office Minister Diana Johnson makes a valid point about Theresa May supporting migrant domestic slavery by tying their visas to one employer.
Unfortunately she also accepts uncritically the current case of “invisible handcuffs” slavery saying “The Labour party would deal with this case proportionately. We would try the ‘invisible handcuffs’ factional splitter Maoist squatters case in the special Court of Make-believe and convict to ten years in the pretend prison at the back of the wardrobe.”
No mention of Cameron’s plans for web censorship. Let’s hope it’s quietly forgotten.
Just recently the press has been awash with reports of three women held as slaves in South-West London. The police have disclosed only meagre details like they were originally “a collective” and shared a political ideology.
Despite every few details, UK Home Secretary Theresa May has – no doubt trying to benefit from the shock and outrage – declared tackling slavery in modern Britain “a personal priority.”
The trouble is that this slavery story is totally overblown. It looks like their shared ideology was Anarchism and they probably just wanted out and were not slaves at all. No handcuffs except for “invisible handcuffs.” I’m calling it bollocks.
25/11/13 Looks like I was wrong on the Anarchism. Slavery case: two arrested ran a revolutionary Communist collective. I wonder if I’ll be wrong on the “invisible handcuffs.
25/11/13 5.20 p.m. There appears to a prejudged approach and a lack of sensitivity to this news story. Political ideology and the fact that the group has lived at many different addresses in London are repeatedly emphasized.
Living in London on a low income has always been precarious, more so for people reduced to living in squats: squatters would often be forced to relocate as properties are repossessed. I’m talking from experience.
Slavery is about being held as a prisoner and denied basic rights. It is not about people pursuing a different, alternative lifestyle. Nor is it about being a dysfunctional family.
26/11/13 ‘Slavery’ in London: an hysterical morality tale even features dysfunctional and an iceberg …