Op-ed column: After-effects of slavery linger in attitudes and practices today

In Douglas Blackmon’s book “Slavery by Another Name,” my eyes were opened to something I didn’t know

In Douglas Blackmon’s book “Slavery by Another Name,” my eyes were opened to something I didn’t know existed.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was put into effect, I thought that slavery was outlawed. But the Proclamation only declared freedom, and did not protect it. After Reconstruction, laws were written or revived in the South that essentially criminalized African-Americans who were not attached to whites. Traffickers used lawmen and hired thugs to “harvest” African-American men on the slightest of charges.

These men were convicted of (usually) trumped-up charges by justices that were complicit in this system of resurrected slavery.

Since the men could not pay the fines leveled against them, they were sold to companies that bought their labor and housed and treated them in slave-like conditions. They were shackled, provided with little nourishment, and no medical treatment for years, if they survived the harsh conditions at all.

Minor trespasses within the forced labor camps resulted in major punishments: medieval-style tortures, including stretching, and whippings with a variety of objects. Water was also a tool used to control inmates, in a fashion that is well-known as “water-boarding.”

Limestone, one of the raw materials these men mined, was used in the making of steel in Birmingham. Boys harvested sugarcane. The streets of Atlanta were paved in bricks made in neo-slave camps — not quite the yellow brick road of Dorothy’s Oz.

Surreal information

I find the information I am learning about neoslavery as surreal as the Land of Oz once seemed to me.

The cruelties that began when black American men and boys were stolen from their lives — first in service of the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War, and then in the development of

industries that fueled the great economic growths of the 20th century — have, like the slave-trade and pre-Civil War slavery, echoes that resound in our culture.

These echoes are the terrific numbers of black men in jail, which far exceeds numbers of black men who are in college. Current prison labor contracts with all sorts of companies, from manufacturing to high-tech, mimic the forced labor camps that peppered the South.

Hold a figurative mirror up to the past, and you’ll find many similarities between the quality of life for blacks in America then and now. The socially sanctioned continuation of slave conditions into the early 1940s is what fueled the “great migration” of African-Americans from the South to Northern states. Lynchings were a part of this sanction, as black people were hanged in public places by white mobs while the law casually looked the other way.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch of the imagination to compare the death penalty to lynchings. Take the case of Troy Davis, who is on death row in Georgia.

Davis was convicted in 1991 of murdering a policeman; since his trial, seven of nine key prosecution witnesses have recanted their statements, saying they were forced to make them. On Oct. 24, just three days before his scheduled execution, the federal appeals court in Atlanta stayed his execution for 25 days, allowing time for Davis’s lawyers to apply for a new appeal.

In lynchings, the victims were often convicted of their crimes on flimsy or nonexistent evidence. Sometimes, there was no trial at all, just a civil conviction, as in the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a Chicago-raised teenager who maybe whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. Till’s death is part of what sparked the civil rights movement.

Part of cure

Blackmon suggests in his book that Americans need to recognize the legacy of slavery as part of what might cure the aftermath of slavery and neoslavery. I ask that the state of Georgia take a step in this direction and listen to Troy Davis’s appeal for his life.

The powers that be don’t have to acknowledge that racism might have helped convict this man; perhaps it is a coincidence that Davis is black and the murdered policeman was white. It has been nearly 20 years since the crime, and with the new evidence, or lack thereof, Davis deserves attention from the court, regardless of the color of his skin.

Slap my hand for pulling the race card, but as you do, think about the violence that has been average and expected for black Americans within my lifetime, a lifetime that has seen advances in transportation and communication that I could not have imagined.

Let’s hope that when my grandchildren are old, they will see advances in humanity, too.

K.C. Halloran lives in Melrose. His daughter Amy Halloran helped write this piece. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

Leave a Reply