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    did I hear that right?..., 2009-01-20 09:27:45 | Main | cuba..., 2009-01-22 22:26:19

    the postbellum south:

    I've been stirring up the guts to finally plow through the last half of Slavery By Another Name, and it's just one long impossible horror show. I'm not sure how Blackmon was able to stomach writing it, considering how hard it is to read it without vomiting. It might knock out Late Victorian Holocausts as the most depressing book ever written, but it's hard to weigh them on scale. The British Empire's manmade famines on the Indian subcontinent in the same time frame must be orders of magnitude greater in terms of mortality, but getting some quantitative handle on the scope of African-American peonage and sharecropper serfdom in the South - in addition to the restricted freedom of residency throughout much the rest of the country that kept them there - seems almost impossible beyond admitting that no African American could have gone unaffected by the scale of the injustice, of which Southern peonage is only the goriest detail. The book is largely left to focus on the qualitative, and every simple qualitative detail is horrifying.

    After Theodore Roosevelt's timid efforts between 1903 and 1906 to legally combat the systemic false imprisonment and forced labor that had been constructed in postbellum Alabama and much of the rest of the South floundered against racist juries a resentful white backlash against blacks emerged nationwide on a wave of revisionist propaganda, culminating in successive waves of mob violence. Roosevelt's attorneys, lacking a federal statute making slavery a crime and with little other legal recourse due to the weakening of black legal rights with the heinous 1883 Supreme Court decision striking down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, decided to prosecute on the basis of anti-peonage laws that required proof of indebtedness. The shoddy record keeping of the revived slave trade itself lead to routine acquittals and made prosecution all but impossible. To demonstrate his own commitment to freedom, Roosevelt pardoned the one man, John Pace, sentenced to a short five year prison term as a result of those efforts. Woodrow Wilson's racist idealism reversed what little progress was made under TDR, ushering in the federalization of Jim Crow policies: segregating D.C. and firing blacks employed in the federal bureaucracy and the US Post Office. No meaningful efforts to curtail the systemic denial of anything remotely resembling black citizenship would be forthcoming again until World War II, so the system continued to ruthlessly expand in scope and cruelty.

    The system of mass peonage in US Steel's Alabama coalmines (after it merged with TCI in 1907) deserves a special place in history. It's impossible to imagine that any book could possibly include a more revolting chapter: black men incarcerated for traveling on public roads without proof of employment are sold into the most primitive coal mining operation imaginable. Half naked and half starved, thousands of men are forced to live in darkness six days a week, chained up at night to festering cots, forced to scab during United Mine Worker strikes and utilized by the bosses to build white resentment, whipped and tortured and murdered on a daily basis for any perceived slight, or for falling short of an eight ton quota, or for working overtime to fill it. Reduced to levels so low it would be impossible to honestly compare it to any natural form of animal life, rape and violence among the slaves is rampant, as the men crawled on their bellies in the underground to carve out their quotas in coal. Hundreds of black women - many coming to the mines seeking out their kidnapped husbands - were forced into domestic and sexual slavery for the white managers. It's almost enough to give the barest credence to the romanticization of antebellum slavery, where at least involuntary servants might enjoy some minimal respect of the kind businessmen pay to property. The reconstruction of Southern plantation slavery might have been one thing had it ever really ended after the Civil War, but there simply aren't adjectives to describe its transformation into an industrial grinding mill of human souls at the dawn of the 20th century.

    Last night I got to Blackmon's retelling of the trial of John S. Williams, a white farmer who became the only white convicted for the murder a black man in Georgia from 1877 to 1966. It's a story worthy of a tragicomic Coen brother's script.

    Williams pays the fines for - or, stated more clearly, purchases from an Atlanta prison - one "Iron" John, and enslaves him on his farm with 40 other black men. Williams' son Leroy shortly murders the man in what we'll call a labor dispute, and he has the other men dump the body in the farm pond. Months later one of the men escape the farm and reports the incident at a federal courthouse. Two agents from the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation go to the farm to investigate. Rather than investigate much of anything the agents simply explain to Williams what constitutes a legal violation of the peonage statutes, telling him there's no reason to worry about any case being brought by them.

    Despite the reassurances, Williams panics. Rather than risk his enterprise, he decides to end the practice of involuntary servitude on his plantation:

    Just after dawn the next morning, Williams found Manning, the black overseer, in the early chill and told him the other workers could "ruin" them all. "You have to get rid of all the stockade niggers," Williams said. "We'll have to do away with them."

    Two days later, Williams and Manning attacked Johnnie Williams, one of the forced laborers, in a remote pasture and bludgeoned him to death with the flat side of an axe. The following morning, John Will Gaither was ordered to begin digging a new well. Once it was a few feet deep, he was killed with a pickaxe blow to the head and buried in the hole.

    On the evening of Friday, February 25, 1921, a week afterthe federal agents visited, Williams entered the slave quarters and told the stunned men they were free to go. He said Jon Browne and Johnny Benson should get in his car to go to the train station that night. Instead, Williams drove them to an isolate spot, where Manning wrapped chains around their bodies and attached a heavy iron wheel from a cotton press. The pair were thrown alive off a bridge into the Alcovy River, where they sank into the murk and drowned.

    As darkness fell on Saturday night, Willie Preston, Lindsey Peterson, and Harry Price climbed into the car under the same ruse. They were chained to bags filled with bricks, and Preston and Peterson were thrown off a different bridge. Price, resigned to his fate, jumped in on his own.

    Before the church hour on Sunday morning, Manning split Johnny Green's skull with an axe. The white farmer watched as Manning attacked and then instructed him to keep hitting Green's shattered skull until all signs of life ceased.

    After a Sunday dinner of fried chicken and biscuits, Williams called for Willie Givens, another black slave worker, to join him and Manning for a walk into the nearby woods. At the edge of the forest, Manning sank his axe in Givens' back. A week later, Williams drowned Charlie Chisholm, the other African American who had been ordered to assist in the killings, and then shot to death Fletcher Smith, the last of the other forced laborers.

    When the bodies start surfacing in the cricks of Jasper and Newton counties a national scandal breaks out, leading to Williams' conviction and sentencing to life in prison. The fascinating details of the local reaction described in Pete Daniel's account really have to be read for themselves. Hundreds of ghoulishly fascinated gossips follow Williams' involuntary accomplice to the graves of the victims, and then stir themselves up into a panic over an imagined negro uprising, arming themselves to the teeth and rushing to break up a black prayer meeting before the mourning of the oppressed got out of hand.

    The irony is that if Williams had - instead of murdering 11 men and depositing their bodies in local waterways - simply set the men free, or just worked them to death on his plantation, there was almost no chance he would have faced a judge. If he had, and even more improbably been found guilty of peonage before an all white jury, the sentence would have likely amounted to a $500 fine.

    In Alabama alone at least 300,000 men were sentenced to forced labor just during the 1920s. Even with the mechanization of the work Alabama's slave mines continue operating with forced labor through 1928, the survivors joining an ever-growing pool of forced labor elsewhere in the state, enslaving some 5% of all black adult males at any given time. The 8,000 men sentenced to hard labor in George in 1930 keep over half a million other African Americans locked in serfdom to whites out of fear of the chain gang. Four million other African-Americans throughout the South lived under similar totalitarian reigns of fear for over another decade while federal and state authorities looked on in silence, ignoring complaints from both blacks and whites who dared report ongoing enslavement or the barbarous working conditions it entailed. The virtual debt bondage of immigrant workers in company towns across the country might almost be comparable but for the free license white bosses had to beat and torture black workers into submission.

    It was, absurdly enough, enemy propaganda directed at African American soldiers during World War II that motivated some action by the Department of Justice. Attorneys were directed to start prosecuting slave holders on the basis of antebellum-era laws and to abandon prosecuting under the anti-peonage acts. US Sugar Corporation was indicted in 1942, and although the case was thrown out on a technicality the company started enslaving black West Indian immigrants instead of African American inmates. A year later a Texas farmer and his daughter were found guilty of violating the 1866 Slave Kidnapping Act and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Congress finally passed a law making slavery a federal crime in 1948 (section 1584 of US criminal code), 86 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

    African American slavery in the United States would finally be rooted out over the next decade.


:: posted by buermann @ 2009-01-21 19:29:54 CST | link


    Comments:
      So tell me: do people with power tend to drift toward the bastard beacon, or is greed the root of this evil? In other words, if there wasn't a buck to be made somewhere somehow; do you think that people would be driven to enslave other people?

    posted by leahaz @ 2009-01-21 19:51:13 | link

      Well, once you exclude the profit motive you're only left with the extra leisure time when somebody does your work for you for free, the sexual gratification of the white slave owners with the dehumanized bodies of black women, the sadism of the whipping bosses, the sadistic pleasure and sense of superiority a racist of any station could enjoy over anyone with a single quantum of inferior ancestry, and all the other little joys any asshole could enjoy kicking around a minority of the population with more impunity than one could kick a dog.

      On the other hand, you might want to consider this.

    posted by buermann @ 2009-01-21 20:40:13 | link

      I suppose you could argue that it's unwise to underestimate the scumbucket potential of our human brothers and sisters. Is it too pessimistic to say expect the worst of people, and that way hopefully you won't be surprised by their fuckery? Maybe that explains why slavery is, to this day, alive and well and sadly thriving madly in some places.
      But I say, as with so many things, add profit potential, and watch the justification train saddle up and go riding off into the sunset.

    posted by leahaz @ 2009-01-21 21:40:29 | link

      It seems to me that the economics of slavery 'work' only as long as the slavers are able to parasitize the overall state. It's profitable (more accurately, viable) only as a long as the slavers can call on the police, judicial, regulatory and military functions of the government, without paying a full share of the costs. The expense of supporting agrarian and industrial slavery drains resources from everyone else, in particular from high value added enterprise, whose owners and managers are going to get resentful.

      If the slavers parasitize the state enough, it becomes vulnerable to extortionate trade agreements and conquest. They drag everyone down with them, causing more resentment. At some point, something's got to give. When it does, the slavers may continue as compradors, providing cheap resources for high value added enterprise, but their continued influence in their immediate locus of control is contingent on their utility and, not least, market sentiment. As an aside, I think that, more than anything else, informed Calhoun's resentment of Big Capitalist finance. Those heartless yankee bankers just didn't understand tradition (tradition read as leaving compradors fully in charge of their nasty little fiefdoms). But they were just being true to their capitalist selves. The slaver nobility offered a poor ROI and undermined better markets.

      In the finest political tradition, a true compromise was reached by the great liberal, Woodrow Wilson. The compradors got to keep some control of their nasty little fiefdoms -- as long they didn't cost too much to leave in place. Everyone else gets the benefit of a reserve army of labor from the terrified, occasionally mobile and desperately impoverished. Talk about triangulation...

    posted by AlSchumann @ 2009-01-22 07:18:52 | link




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