Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Labor By Another Name

“Slavery by Another Name – the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by Douglas A Blackmon, 2009

This is a great book of original research by an Atlanta-based journalist from the Wall Street Journal.  It makes the point that slavery was not simply the product of ‘bad ideas’ or ‘bad people’ but was financially beneficial to many businessmen in the post-Civil War South. 

This is why virtual slavery didn’t go away after the end of the war, or the White League’s destruction of Reconstruction.   Capitalism remained.  And capitalism will use any kind of labor – slave, forced, debtor, contract, involuntary servitude, Bracero, guest worker, share-cropper, prison or so-called ‘free’ – in order to make a profit.  This book shows how Blacks after the Civil War were still exploited for super-profits through various forms of forced labor, helped by the southern legal system, the prison system and the political system, in a seamless web of oppression.  “Jim Crow” and segregation were only a reflection of these labor relations.  At this point, chattel slavery had come to a formal end.  But ‘slavery’ in its financial essence, as a peculiar form of labor – in some respects worse than chattel slavery – still affected the whole black population in the South, especially in the period after Reconstruction until World War II.  Not ‘affected’ in the sense that everyone was a direct ‘prison’ slave, but that every black person feared this. 

Blackmon (who is a white man) keys his story around a black man sent to an Alabama coalmine near present-day Birmingham in Jefferson County in 1908.  He was sold-off by a sheriff in Columbiana, Shelby County to work as a prisoner at the Tennessee, Coal, Iron & Railroad mines, recently purchased by U.S. Steel.  His debt was $38.22.  He was 22 years old.  He was ‘convicted’ to work for 6 months for the crime of ‘vagrancy.’   He died in that most profitable hell-hole 5 and a half months later of tuberculosis, overwork and bad nutrition.  His name was Green Cottenham. This is his story and that of unknown hundreds of thousands like him.

Not all black people in this South were subject to county or state prison labor – but the legal ease with which a black person could be thrown into these death-holes – many times underground coal and iron mines - played a role in disciplining the whole black working class in the south.  It also had a role in disciplining white southern workers too, though they only intermittently understood this. Strikes of ‘free’ white and black workers were repeatedly broken using government-supplied contract slaves.  Unions were proscribed.  Communist, leftist and progressive organizers were persona non grata.  Having a vast pool of indentured slaves had a bad effect on everyone, much as plantation slavery distorted not just the black man but the white.

This kind of industrial slavery – on cotton farms either picking cotton or clearing land, timber stands and sawmills, underground coal and iron mines, coke ovens, limestone & quartz quarries, turpentine camps, railroad and road construction, poultry processing – played a role in the further ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ in the south.   This benefitted not just southern capitalists but northern ones too, who used the coal and steel to build or heat the cities of the north.  In fact, another monumentally bad 1896 Supreme Court decision, ‘Plessy v Ferguson,’ allowed the southern States to set their own standards when it came to black people – not just regarding segregation, but in everything.  It spelled the death knell of northern concern with black labor standards.  By 1901 according to Blackmon, no black people were voting anywhere in the South.  The last vestiges of Reconstruction had been destroyed.

It worked like this.  Thuggish locals saw some strong young black man.  They’d grab him and lock him up.  Then some county, state or random ‘justices of the peace,’ sheriff, deputy, constable, store-owner or rich son made up a fake or real charge like vagrancy, drinking, not having any money, swearing, stealing, adultery, carrying a firearm or razor blade, failing to honor a contract, laughing inappropriately, making advances on a white woman, riding a box car, etc.  A mock trial would be performed in minutes, few records were kept and the suspect was always convicted.  They would fine the black man more money than he had, then add extra fees.  The county or state would then ‘sell’ the fine & fees to an industrialist or big farmer, who would pay the tiny amount in order to get a ‘contract’ worker for many months.  Because he couldn’t pay, they’d force the black man to sign a contract with an “X” saying he would work for 3 months, 6 months, a year to pay his ‘debt.’  The sheriff or store-owner would get a kickback, and the circle continued. 

Then the owner would keep him locked up, in chains, beat him regularly, barely feed or clothe him, and work him literally to death.  Debt peonage was worse than chattel slavery because they didn’t own the people over the long run, they only wanted to squeeze the most out of them in a shorter period of time.  If anyone tried to escape, they’d track them with bloodhounds.  Punishment would be meted out to those who helped.  To extend the ‘term’ of a good worker, they’d make up another ‘crime’ and he’d be incarcerated to do more time.  Sometimes they’d even be sold to other businessmen to serve out their ‘time.’

Black women would be dragooned for the crime of ‘prostitution,’ then held at a farm and raped.  Black children as young as 8 also became prisoners.

The racism of the South was all about justifying cheap labor.  WEB Dubois put it this way in a fictional book about the issue:  "Cheap cotton depends on cheap niggers."  It was not simply a moral failing.  In fact, a good case could be made that the eventual weakening of the system came about through the mechanization of mining, road building, cotton farming and timber, not the tardy efforts of the Federal government.

In 1903, the federal government under Theodore Roosevelt finally got wind of what was happening in central Alabama, initially in Coosa, Tallapoosa and Lowndes counties.  A Federal grand jury sitting in Montgomery took testimony from black men who had been snatched off streets of tiny shit towns like Goodwater and Dadeville, and the owners and deputies who had taken them.  A naïve Federal judge finally announced that the system of debt peonage was illegal, and that the Alabama law that said that it was a crime for a black worker to quit his job was also illegal.  (Nearly every other southern state had the same law.) The judge thought the system just involved a few ‘bad apples.’  He didn’t realize the whole state of Alabama was guilty – and, according to Blackmon, involved ‘tens of thousands’ of virtual black slaves and the men who were complicit in rounding them up.  Many of the wealthiest and most prominent people in each state were involved.  While several like John Pace pleaded guilty without a trial, alleging that slavery was not illegal, the rest were released with fines, and cases were dropped.  This became true across the south. Prosecutors eventually believed that ‘symbolic’ victories were the best, and so, eventually, did the federal government.  The Supreme Court struck down lower courts that had declared debt peonage illegal, as ‘states rights’ trumped human rights.  So the system continued, with a slight legal twist - they'd run everything through a courthouse.

Through all this, Dubois called the South ‘an armed camp for the intimidation of the Negro.’  As Blackmon put it, what choices did black people have? “…free labor camps that functioned like prisons, cotton tenancy that equated to serfdom, or prison mines filled with slaves.”  Dubois himself, in an interesting sidelight, did a first-rate and deep sociological survey of Lowndes County, only to have it lost by the U.S. government for political reasons.

Black neo-slavery – or prison labor, ‘contract’ labor, debt peonage - was similar to the methods used against young white ‘criminals’ – many times poor, homeless or orphan children - dragooned off the streets of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.  They too were sold to farmers as indentured ‘servants’ (essentially workers in bondage) in the 1500 and 1600’s, prior to the full advent of black slavery.  (Read the book, “They Were White and They Were Slaves.”) The U.S. was built on this kind of labor thievery from day one, only switching methods or targets from time to time.  The north had its own debtors prisons and work programs, though these died out much earlier than the south.

Blackmon historicizes this issue, as do most bourgeois historians, by ending his history under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, which finally abolished neo-slavery through actually applying and clarifying earlier federal laws in 1951 – not leaving it to the “South” to decide.  This, of course, came due to the pressure from Japanese and German propaganda, and also from the Soviet Union and domestic communists, who made debt peonage a world-wide political issue. 

Blackmon does not mention the present ‘war on drugs,’ which allows the U.S. to incarcerate millions of black and Latino people for fake crimes.  Nor does he mention the present prison-industrial complex, which still uses black prison labor for super-profits on a large scale. According to Steve Fraser, "nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses or manufacturing textiles, shoes and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day."  Wal-Mart, for instance, along with other large corporations, use suppliers using prison labor.  Private capitalists taking advantage of prison labor was legally sanctioned in 1979 under Democrat Jimmy Carter, unsurprisingly of Plains, Georgia. Recently a rash of stories have come out about poor people being thrown in jail for non-payment of legal fines and fees, and, even more draconian, failure to pay debts to private parties.  The 'debtor's prison' is returning.  I have been told that the book, "The New Jim Crow" goes into this in some detail.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
January 30, 2013

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