Slavery by Another Name
This shocking documentary reveals how virtual slavery persisted in the South for 80 years after the Civil War and the enactment of the 13th amendment. This involuntary servitude, based on Jim Crow laws and illegal debt slavery, allowed Southern factories, railroads, mines and plantations to use former slaves as a captive workforce. Prior to 1941, the federal government largely turned a blind to these activities, owing to the economic importance of free labor in the industrialization of the South.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Congress imposed a period of radical Reconstruction on the South. Enforced by federal troops, it ensured that newly freed slaves enjoyed the right to vote and other civil liberties they were guaranteed under the 13th, 14th and 15th amendment.* The 1500 or so black politicians elected to Reconstruction governments established the first free public schools (for white and black students) in the South.
Jim Crow Laws and Convict Labor
Reconstruction ended in 1875. When a pro-Southern majority took over Congress, control of Southern states and communities reverted to the wealthy elite which had run the slave plantations. Thanks to a loophole in the 13th amendment (see below), all the former slave states quickly established a system to lease convict labor to private companies and plantations. The Jim Crow laws they passed made blacks subject to arrest for petty misdemeanors, such as walking along the railroad tracks, speaking in a loud voice in front of white women, spitting, loitering and vagrancy (all blacks were required to carry proof of employment at all times).
Following their arrest, Southern prisons hired these men (one-third were boys under 16) out to plantations and private companies for $9 a month. Small towns would conduct large police sweeps at cotton picking time or when coal companies were recruit miners.
Working conditions were far worse than under slavery. Companies had no incentive to keep black workers healthy and safe – workers who died were easily replaced. Death rates, especially in the coal mines, were extremely high – roughly 30-40% per year.
Even more Southern blacks were enslaved through illegal debt peonage schemes, which used real and fictitious debts to force them into involuntary servitude. This was based on a totally corrupt legal system in which unscrupulous law enforcement officers collaborated with bent magistrates and justices of the peace. Deputy sheriffs would take blacks into custody, claiming they owed them money. Without a shred of proof, their magistrate friends would throw them in jail. The same deputies would then “buy” and resell them at a profit to private companies and plantation owners.
In the early 1900s a federal grand jury investigated Alabama for debt peonage, illegal under federal law, and returned a number of indictments. Although most were dropped, two of the worst offenders sentenced to federal prison. Concerned about potential ramifications for American industry (the world’s largest corporation US Steel owned the Birmingham coal mine that employed convict and debt-based labor), President Teddy Roosevelt pardoned both of them.
Sharecropping Also Illegal Under Federal Law
Sharecropping was another form of illegal debt peonage. Forced to borrow their living expenses from plantation owners who charged 50-90% interest, sharecroppers had no hope of ever repaying their debts. Worse still, state law prohibited them from leaving the plantation with unpaid debt. Those who tried were arrested and brought back.
The Early Role of the NAACP
All this began to change in the early 1900s with the steady migration of Southern blacks to the North, as well as the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. The latter actively campaigned for anti-lynching laws, as well as stronger enforcement of federal laws banning debt peonage and convict leasing to private entities.
Progress was incredibly slow. By the early 1930s, there were still 4.8 million blacks in the South. Most were caught up in some form of involuntary servitude.
It would the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December for Franklin Roosevelt to mandate aggressive prosecution in all cases of involuntary servitude. His primary concern was that Japan would seize on America’s horrific treatment of African Americans for propaganda purposes.
*13th amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
14th amendment: (Sec 1): “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
15th amendment (Sec 1) “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”