Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Myth that the 13th Amendment Ended Slavery

Radio commentator Paul Harvey used to have a segment of his news show entitled "The Rest of the Story."  In that segment, he would take something commonly known, such as a news event, and provide little known and interesting background about what had happened.  With the new Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln" playing in the theatres this Thanksgiving, there has been some discussion of Lincoln's role involvement in the passage of the 13th Amendment is portrayed.  That made me think of "The Rest of the Story."

Photograph from PBS's Film "Slavery By Another Name"

Of course, we all learned in school that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States.  But did it really?  If you look closely at the wording of the 13th Amendment, you will find a loophole right there in the middle of the amendment, which loophole I have italicized:
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.
Based on a book by Douglas A. Blackmon titled Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, PBS earlier this year aired a documentary with the shortened name:  "Slavery By Another Name."  PBS describes the film:
Slavery by Another Name is a 90-minute documentary that challenges one of Americans’ most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.
The description does not do justice to the film. Viewers will be shocked how African-Americans were locked up based on "pig laws" or "black codes" adopted in southern states, laws that made such things as being without a job a felony. (For a description of those types of laws, here is a link.) When they were incarcerated in prison, the states would then rent out the prisoners out to companies and others needing workers. As the film details, treatment of these African-Americans prison laborers under this new system was often worse than under slavery. Because these post-Civil War bosses were merely "renting" these workers, they did not have the "investment" in them that the slaveholders had in what they had considered their "property," i.e. their slaves.

The film can be viewed in its entirety by going to this link.

1 comment:

Unigov said...

The drug war is nothing but an extension of this type of slavery - locking people up for non-violent crimes such as selling pot, an action that was legal until, what, the 1930's ?

Others are attempting to bring this system back, by charging prisoners for room and board.