Death and the Civil War Directed by Ric Burns (PBS) 2012 Film review This PBS documentary explores the unprecedented level of casualties during the US Civil War and its effect on future federal and military policy. The Civil War was … Continue reading
By Ntozake Shangi and Ifa Bayeza
St Martin’s Press (2010)
Some Sing, Some Cry is a novel tracing seven generations of a fictional African American family from slavery to the election of Barack Obama. The authors are sisters and the first half of the book is based on family oral history.
The novel’s matriarch originates from on an island off the coast of South Carolina and takes the name of a prominent plantation owner who has fathered children by both her mother and herself. The family are forced off their land when Reconstruction ends, migrating to Charleston.
The first half of the book is the strongest, with its poignant depiction of family members being stripped of their newly won freedoms as Jim Crow laws ban them from most occupations. To a large extent, the plot revolves around complex prejudices within the African American community against family members with darker skin. In one instance, the plantation owner kidnaps an light-complected male child and raises him as his heir. In another a “bright-skinned” uncle passes as Irish to evade trade union rules that ban Negroes.
The novel’s main focus is the role newly freed slaves played in the development of modern American music. The reader gets the strong sense that many Mayfield family members turned to working in minstrel shows, music halls and clubs when Jim Crow laws banned them from other occupations.
The sections dealing with the great northern migration, Harlem renaissance and birth of ragtime and jazz are also quite riveting. I came away with a totally new insight into the African American origin of the dance crazes of the “roaring twenties,” eg the “Charleston” and the “Black Bottom.”
This was also my first exposure to the extreme discrimination African American soldiers faced during World War I. Unlike white troops, they weren’t issued gas masks. Forced to improvise, they covered their faces with urine soaked rags to protect themselves against mustard gas.
Plutocracy: Political Repression in the United States
Scott Noble (2015)
As German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously stated, “History is written by the victors.” In the US, most history books are written by and for the corporate oligarchs who run our government. Plutocracy is the first documentary to comprehensively examine early American history from the perspective of the working class. Part II (Solidarity Forever) will cover the late 19th Century to the early twenties. The filmmaker is currently seeking donations to complete the project. If you’d like to help, you can donate to their Patreon account.
The film can’t be embedded but can be viewed free at Plutocracy
Plutocracy starts with Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, the insurrection of Massachusetts farmers against the courts and banks that were fleecing them of their meager wealth and property. Similar rebellions in Rhode Island and Virginia would cause leading US bankers, merchants and plantation owners to organize a secret convention to create a central government and standing army. Each of the 13 original states, which in 1787 were still independent and sovereign, sent delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.
Instead of revising the Articles, as authorized by their state legislatures, the delegates closed the meeting to the public and voted to replace them with a federal constitution. The latter substantially limited the freedom and power of state legislatures and ordinary Americans.
Plutocracy moves on to cover the massive Irish immigration of the mid-nineteenth century and the appalling squalor so-called “white Negroes” lived in. During the 19th century, 80% of babies born to Irish immigrants died in infancy.
The film touches only briefly on the Civil War, describing laws that enabled robber barons like John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt to evade the Civil War draft by paying a poor person $300 to replace them.
It offers a detailed depiction of post-Civil War Reconstruction, which coincided with the 1871 Paris commune and saw blacks collaborating with poor whites to establish the South’s first public schools and hospitals. This was in addition to the election of numerous former slaves to judgeships and legislative positions.
Their eagerness to return Negroes to productive status on plantations led northern industrialists to pressure Congress to end Reconstruction by removing the federal troops protecting the rights of former slaves. It also led to their passive acceptance of unconstitutional Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. The chief aim of both was to prevent poor backs and whites from associating with one another.
The federal troops withdrawn from the South were redeployed in genocidal campaigns against Native Americans and Mexicans. By the end of the 19th century, not only had Mexico ceded half their territory to the US (including California, Texas, Utah, Nevada and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Montana – in the 1984 Treaty of Guadalupe), but US corporations enjoyed de facto control of all land remaining under sovereign Mexican control.
Stripping the Native Americans and Mexicans of their land in the West, readied the US for the rise of the robber barons of industry (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Vanderbilt) and a corrupt system of federal and local government run entirely by bribery and patronage.
The corruption and squalid living conditions of the late 19th century would give rise to militant trade unionism, socialism, anarchism and populism. Plutocracy depicts the Pullman and similar strikes in which strikers were brutally beaten and killed by Pinkerton’s Detectives and other goons hired by industrial bosses, as well as national guardsmen and, on several occasions, federal troops.
The film opens with a poignant depiction of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in US history. It’s the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, involving 10,000 coal miners. Denise Giardini memorializes the Battle of Blair Mountain in her 1987 novel Storming Heaven.
*Rockefeller and Morgan had a relative monopoly on the banks, Carnegie on steel and Vanderbilt on the railroads.
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.”