Slavery by Another Name – The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, was interviewed on Bill Moyers Journal tonight.
He explained how vagrancy laws in the South effectively criminalized Black life so that if, for example, you were unable to prove you were employed — in a time before pay stubs — you would be subject to arrest. Broadly applied, it was almost impossible not to be in violation of some misdemeanor statute at any given time.
Once arrested, the legal system was used to coerce tens of thousands of Black men into brutal forced labor:
There’s no way that anybody can read this book and come away still wondering why there is a sort of fundamental cultural suspicion among African-Americans of the judicial system, for instance. I mean, that suspicion is incredibly well-founded. The judicial system, the law enforcement system of the South became primarily an instrument of coercing people into labor and intimidating blacks away from their civil rights. That was its primary purpose, not the punishment of lawbreakers. And so, yes, these events build an unavoidable and irrefutable case for the kind of anger that still percolates among many, many African-Americans today.
The full interview and transcript are here.
Last week Blackmon was on Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon. Significantly, on that program he explained that it was Northern Whites who let this all happen:
But fundamentally the practice that we’re talking about here was one element of a much larger phenomenon that occurred all across White society in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth in which northern Whites abandoned, for the most part, abandoned African Americans in the south. Northern Whites were tired of the long struggle to figure out how to integrate freed slaves and their descendants into American society, they were frustrated by it, it had paralyzed the national political process for decades… In the South, White southerners increasingly were demanding increasingly that they be allowed to settle quote unquote the negro question themselves, the vast majority of African Americans still lived in the South, and even though almost a full generation of African Americans had experienced legitimate, full-blown freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War, for thirty years or more after the Civil War, Blacks in enormous numbers participated in elections, voted as citizens, acquired property… what began to happen at the end of the nineteenth century was this crushing new phenomenon in which Whites in the North gave up on the whole process and made a decision that whites in the south we’re gong to be allowed to do whatever they wished.