For those among us concerned about the question of police legitimacy in communities of color, be sure to catch the documentary “Slavery by Another Name” when it plays again on PBS or read the book of the same title by Douglas Blackmon. The film and book expose to the light the ongoing enslavement of black men in the South between the end of the Civil War and the World War II. It’s full of jaw droppers even for people familiar with the rise of Jim Crow justice after the scuttling of Reconstruction. By rewriting laws to be instruments of human rights abuses Southern pols turned the law’s agents — sheriffs, judges, police and prosecutors — into criminals. Check this excerpt from an interview in Newsweek with the author:
“One part of neoslavery, “convict leasing,” was the sentencing of prisoners to hard labor or to fine them outrageously, and [then] they were leased out to commercial interests such as farms, coal mines, turpentine production plants, lumber and railroad camps. This was the means by which the white South forced millions of other African-Americans to go along with de facto slavery that took on the form of sharecropping, abusive farm tenancy, land renting and labor contracts.
After the Civil War, all of the Southern states passed a series of laws, which were designed primarily to criminalize black life. For example, vagrancy statues made it a crime for any person to be unable to prove at any given moment that he was employed. Also, in every Southern state it was against the law for African-Americans to sell their crops after dark. The purpose was specifically to ensure that as a sharecropper you could only sell your crops to the landowner.”
The suffering and death were so bad that even trying to label the experience, with words such as cruelty and monstrousness, only diminishes the horror. I believe we continue to inherit this legacy.
Blackmon reminds us that though the people and the Congress in 1865 declared slavery unconstitutional, only in 1941 was a statute enacted to make slavery a federal crime.