Tag Archives: Segregation

Videos for the Classroom: Interview about “Slavery by Another Name”

A few nights ago, PBS showed a documentary that chilled me to the bone.

Slavery by Another Name is a documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.  It details an often-overlooked chapter in African American history: the  “convict lease” system that placed thousands of Southern Blacks in a state of virtual slavery after the Civil War.

When the Reconstruction occupation forces left the South in 1877, Southern whites retook state governments and forced Blacks into a secondary status.  Part of this process was a series of laws that entrapped Black men under seemingly innocent conditions, such as looking at a white woman, walking on a railroad, etc.

Once in custody, these men faced exhorbitant fines and were forced to pay for the cost of their arrest.  Unable to pay such “debts”, these prisoners are leased out to plantations, mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, steel mills and road building contractors.  State governments made millions in revenue leasing prison inmates to private companies as a source of cheap labor.

These men endured brutal conditions and backbreaking labor in a state of bondage thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which does not bar slavery in the case of punishment for a crime. 

It was a system that persisted until World War II.

The video is a conversation that takes place at the National Museum of American History between Blackmon and Bernard and Shirley Kinsey about the book.  For those unfamiliar with the period, the conversation is a real eye-opener to Blackmon’s award-winning research.

Also, read his book and watch the documentary.  You’ll be just as shocked as I was.

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This Day in History 7/2: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Independence Day is around the corner, and we’re in a giddy mood here in the Neighborhood.  It’s fitting that on the day that the Second Continental Congress passed the resolution calling for independence, another piece of paper almost equally important came into being.

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Coupled with its partner, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, these bills were the culmination of decades of struggle to extend the Revolution’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to every American, regardless of race or gender.  It outlawed segregation in public places, in employment, in schools, in housing, in government and in politics, effectively invalidating the infamous “Jim Crow” laws that kept people of color as second class citizens since the Civil War.

This legislation, the brainchild of John F. Kennedy, could not have been enacted without years of struggle.  Groups such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress for Racial Equality had clamored for federal action on segregation since the shameful Plessy v. Ferguson case legitimized “separate but equal” in 1896.  W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others brought the struggle to public attention.  Lyndon Johnson, who knew he would alienate his southern base in enacting this bill, nonetheless made sure this legacy of his predecessor succeeded.

The Civil Rights Act was not without its problems.  It did not initially include women–”sex” discrimination was put in as a cynical measure to ensure defeat.  Nor was the bill very direct in its methodology to enforce the legislation.  Title II of the act, which “encouraged” desegregation of public schools and empowered the Attorney General to enforce it, would prove especially problematic in the 1970s and 1980s.  “Forced” busing of students to maintain racial quotas led to ugly rioting and disturbances in Boston and other localities.  Finally, the desegregation of employment has often been a crutch for the hiring of non-qualified personnel based simply on race. 

Yet in spite of these setbacks, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a watershed in our history.  Many see the bill as the end of the civil rights movement, although its implementation and focus would cause conflict well into our own time.  It finally codified into law the true meaning of Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal.”  For the first time in our history, the promise and ideals of the Revolution would extend to all Americans. 

Because of the Civil Rights Act, July 4 is Independence Day for all of us.

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