PBS special: Huh? U.S slavery ended in 1942?
Multiple choice time: U.S. slavery ended in
1) 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation
2) 1865 with the 13th Amendment
3) 1942 with the first conviction under Circular 3591 of the FDR administration.
Wall Street Journal writer Douglas A. Blackmon, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name is the basis for tonight’s PBS special of the same name, passingly makes the case for No. 3 as “technically” the end of the peculiar institution. And if you’ve followed the too-little known story of convict labor, sharecropping and wage peonage in the South, you can’t but agree that he has a point. Blackmon is a co-producer of the film directed by Sam Pollard, whose numerous previous credits include Eyes on the Prize II.
In the simplified version of American history, the Civil War ends slavery , the civil rights movement ends segregation and … then Barack Obama becomes president. But the abject horrors visited upon African Americans between Civil War and civil rights movement tend to get short shrift even in more sophisticated synopses.
And even for someone somewhat familiar with the all-American terror of the lynch mobs, and with the sharecropping system that held most Southern blacks (which is to say the vast majority of African Americans before the Northern migration) in a sort of servitude, seeing the depth and depravity of the convict labor system is shocking.
Writes Blackmon in the introduction to his 2008 book (subtitle: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II):
… the records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random, indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled a hundred thousand and perhaps twice that figure.
And while the threat of the lynch mob was omnipresent (roughly 3,400 blacks and 1,300 whites were strung up before the practice began to decline in 1944), in the post-war South:
… the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans. … By the end of the 1880s, at least 10,000 black men were slaving in forced labor mines, fields, and work camps in the former Confederate states.
Both the book and the documentary repeatedly underscore the triviality of the charges throwing black men into the world of convict labor – and the profits to be derived from this labor pool of near slaves.
What brought the practice of convict labor to an end – and with it sharecropping, whose legal basis was essentially the same – was the Roosevelt administration’s decision, post-Pearl Harbor, to clean up the most glaringly egregious manifestations of American racism in anticipation of a propaganda barrage aimed at Yankee hypocrisies. Attorney General Francis Biddle was shocked to find that “virtually all allegations of slavery” received by the feds were left to local officials (who were at the center of the corrupt system in the first place). Likewise, he was shocked that the practice involved more than “a few plantations.”
He also realized:
…that in an all-out war, in which millions of African Americans would be called upon to sacrifice in a struggle to protect freedom and liberty in Europe and Asia, the U.S. government had to make clear that anyone who continued to practice slavery, in violation of 1865’s 13th Amendment would be prosecuted as a criminal.
Hence on Dec. 12, 1941, Biddle issued Circular No. 3591 and the federal prosecutions began.
Blackmon writes in the book that the federal criminal code was “dramatically rewritten” in 1948 to clarify anti-slavery provisions, and Congress in 1951 passed more stringent statutes to that end. Nonetheless, “Reports of involuntary servitude continued to trickle in to federal investigators well into the 1950s.”
Back to the quiz. The proclamation of 1863 only affected slave states in the rebellion. The 13th Amendment made slavery unconstitutional across the land. But the distance between the lofty amendment and the reality on the ground? Blackmon and his associates make the case for 77 years.
Slavery by Another Name airs Monday at 9 p.m. and Tuesday at 2:30 a.m. on WTVS-TV (Channel 56). More about the film and the book at slaverybyanothername.com.