On Corporate Complicity in the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
Douglas A. Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name” is reviewed today in The Boston Globe:
Southern white opponents of Reconstruction and black citizenship launched a series of attacks on African-American economic and political rights. One such assault involved exploiting the portion of the 13th Amendment allowing use of unfree labor “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This subterfuge involved planters, mine owners, sheriffs, magistrates, legislators, other local officials, and, in time, large corporations, such as the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Co. (eventually a subsidiary of US Steel). Ultimately, thousands of African-Americans were convicted of often minor (and frequently trumped-up) crimes such as vagrancy, riding freight trains, disturbing the peace, petty theft, and nonpayment of an alleged debt.
While the fines imposed by the court for these crimes would frequently be small, much larger court costs far beyond the ability of the accused to pay would be levied. The convict would then be sentenced to hard labor and his or her contract sold to a planter or commercial concern. This system had the multiple utility of providing the states and municipalities (and individuals managing the buying and selling of contracts) with capital, employers with extraordinarily cheap labor, and the proponents of white power with a tool for the social control of African-Americans.
One of Blackmon’s most interesting points is that this sort of peonage was not an atavistic holdover from the antebellum period, but was in many respects a product of the “New South.” While many of these neo-slaves labored in agriculture, Blackmon shows that such coerced labor was a hallmark of the rise of postbellum Southern industry, notably in the transportation, mineral extraction, and iron and steel industries that turned Birmingham, Ala., into the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
Blackmon was a recent guest on Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon. On that program he explained how he came to the write the book:
The way that I came to this was as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. And I had written a number of stories in the late 1990s that raise the question of what would happen if American corporations were subjected to an examination through the same lens of historical scrutiny that at that time German corporations and Swiss banks were being examined through in connection to slave labor during the Holocaust and the theft of Jewish fortunes left with Swiss banks. And that started me on a process of curiosity about both how the south – and the United States more generally — how differently it had forced itself to process the past, or not to process its own guilt, frankly, in the past, how differently that it happened in America then we had insisted on it happening in Europe.
And the same time it also made me think that American corporations who plays such a fundamentally integral role in the policing of the Jim Crow segregation laws and practices of American society in the first three quarters of the century, the corporations really had not ever been asked to go back. America never had a truth and reconciliation process to go back and wasn’t really even until 1990s that homicides of civil rights are being investigated and prosecuted. And so that that set me on a path of writing several stories that looked at some of these historical questions related to corporate conduct…
Listen to the entire interview. He does not advocate holding these corporations responsible for any specific events done by their founders or by people associated with them, but obviously he believes it’s important for us to know today the particulars of what went on.