This Pulitzer Prize winning book analyzes why blacks did not rise in American society after emancipation until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It provides an answer to those who counter the lack of black achievement with the “bootstrapping” advancement of immigrant populations. And most importantly it shows that long past the time of the Civil War, slavery was actually still alive and well in the South in all but name, with active support of the state and federal governments.
Here’s how it worked (and a vast record of documents unearthed by the author attests to this system):
“By 1900,” Blackmon writes, “the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites.” Thousands of random indigent black men were arrested for anything from unemployment, to not being able to prove employment at any given moment, to changing employers without “permission”, or even loud talk. In other words, they were arrested for being young black men. They were sentenced to hard labor, and bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day – “subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners – many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement.” Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located.
Blackmon charges that the desire to industrialize the South quickly was central to the restrictions put in place to suppress blacks, since these laws allowed for easy arrest and enslavement of workers. He avers:
Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.”
But also, and quite importantly, “these bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.” Millions of blacks lived in a shadow of fear that they or their family members would be taken into this system. It had a profound effect on their behavior and self-esteem.
Meanwhile, the whites in the North were impatient about blacks, and saw their lack of achievement as indicative of inferiority. An 1874 article in the Chicago Tribune asked:
Is it not time for the colored race to stop playing baby? The whites of America have done nobly in outgrowing the old prejudices against them. They cannot hurry this process by law. Let them obtain social equality as every other man, woman, and child in this world obtain it — by showing themselves in their lives the social equals of those with whom they wish to consort. If they do this, year-by-year the prejudices will die away.”
As Blackmon writes:
There was no acknowledgment of the effects of cycle upon cycle of malevolent defeat, of the injury of seeing one generation rise above the cusp of poverty only to be indignantly crushed, of the impact of repeating tsunamis of violence and obliterated opportunities on each new generation of an ever-changing population out-numbered in persons and resources.”
He insists that any consideration of the progress of blacks in the United States after the Civil War must acknowledge that “slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945.” Thus the parents of today are the children of those who suffered under this egregious system, and so it can be expected that the repercussions continue to inform the expectations and attitudes of those who grew up with the stories and experiences derived from this very recent chapter in their family histories.
Evaluation: The story told by Blackmon is horrific. In spite of an abundance of evidence about what happened, history about the neo-slavery that survived after the Civil War is virtually non-existent. Moreover, it is clear from the records that these offenses against blacks were permitted by the nation. The legacy of terror and defeatism has had repercussions up to our present day.
Should it be read? Absolutely! But it’s a painful read, and the text includes some ghastly pictures. And yet, as Blackmon concludes:
Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U.S. society – its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end – can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”